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DJ Khaled, Instagram And TikTok. Officials Shift COVID-19 Messaging To Target Young People

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks in a video promoted on the CDC app, in an effort to reach younger people about the seriousness of COVID-19.
Screen grab from the iTunes app store
Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks in a video promoted on the CDC app, in an effort to reach younger people about the seriousness of COVID-19.

For months, people 65 and older were the target of COVID-19 warnings. The message was: Stay home, especially if you have other health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes.

In recent weeks, though, the age of people getting infected with the virus has been getting younger. So now, the challenge for state and local officials is to get younger people to listen to the public health messages.

You turn to WLRN for reporting you can trust and stories that move our South Florida community forward. Your support makes it possible. Please donate now. Thank you.Across the state, doctors at press conferences with Gov. Ron DeSantis have talked about "the message." Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has, too. "And we also need to drive home the message to our younger residents, that, 'Hey, it's your responsibility to keep safe," Gimenez said in another press conference. 

Dr. Carol Biggs, the chief nursing officer at Jackson Memorial Hospital, had been hoping she would get a break this summer from dealing with the pandemic, but with younger patients falling ill her message to younger people is direct.

"My message is: We're here for you, so please wear a mask for us. Definitely," she said, taking a few minutes away from her work at the hospital. 

Jazmin Padron, 28, of Miami Gardens says the early focus on older people left younger people feeling less at risk. "I feel like a lot of people within my age group are not really taking this seriously since at the beginning of the pandemic, it kind of sounded like it only affected old people," Padron told WLRN. "So I feel like they just act like '[I'm] young I don't have a problem with that."

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber has been trying to reach younger residents and visitors.

"My college-age daughters, Sophie and Hannah, recently informed me that I might not be the best messenger to deliver that admonishment to younger people who currently seem to be spreading the virus disproportionately," he said on July 2 in his weekly COVID-19 video update. "Here is a key message from one of our residents, who is slightly more current."

A hipper Miami Beach resident. See this video, below. 

"This is DJ Khaled, and I wanna talk to the young world, and I wanna talk to everybody, doesn't matter what age you are," he said in the video. "This is very serious. We have to wear our mask." If you don't know who DJ Khaled is, that's the point. You're not who he's talking to.

Who delivers the message is important. California tried a video with five white male governors. "Don't let COVID win. Wear a mask," said California Gov. Gavin Newsom. If you listen to the video without watching you will hear another voice saying "just do it." If you recognize that voice, that may show your age. He's "The Terminator", or former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.


"Imagine if some of Florida's most famous celebrities, most iconic individuals were actually featured all over on poster art and on billboards wearing masks. That sets a norm," says  Justin Gest, associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. He's the author of Mass Appeal: Communicating Policy Ideas in Multiple Media. "And that picture, as they say, is worth many more words than any kind of op-ed that Gloria Estefan or J. Lo could possibly be writing. So there are so many creative ways to communicate your ideas, especially one as simplistic as, 'Can you please wear a mask?'"

Where those messages appear is important, too.  Dr. Jay Butler specializes in infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

"We're exploring TikTok tools. PSAs are a bit older, but that is something that in the right media can help to reach younger people as well," he recently told reporters in a telephone press conference.


We all can help stopping ##covid19 from spreading :point_up_2: ♬ original sound - who

Gest applauds the effort to use the social media platforms where younger people are, but he says it should have been done earlier.

"This should have been done a long time ago so these ideas could have been disseminated," he says.

Isabelle Bradshaw is 23 years old and finished nursing school in West Palm Beach in May.

"I don't really turn on the news," she says. "My mom turns it on so I hear a little bit of that but that's not my main focus in media. It's actually Instagram and I follow accounts like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. When this whole pandemic started, and even now, they started saying, 'wear a mask.'"

She says she also follows the CDC on Instagram and looks at their stories and posts that have information about COVID-19.

Whether you use Instagram, TikTok (the app for short videos), or broadcast television, what the message says is still key.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She studies messaging on diseases like Zika and measles. "The word asymptomatic is not a word most of us use," she says.

It means not having any symptoms, but you can still spread the virus. It's one of the reasons why masks are so important, even though experts didn't recommend them as the pandemic began.

Jamieson says scientists didn't know that about asymptomatic transmission early on.

"So science message is always going to be one that is updating when you're confronting something that is brand new."

And that highlights yet another communications challenge, a changing message in a quickly evolving pandemic.

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Verónica Zaragovia