Memes, phone alerts, and ‘peer influencers’: Getting COVID-19 messaging to young people

People in their 20’s make up largest portion of Bexar County’s COVID-19 cases

The city of San Antonio is thinking of creative ways to make sure teenagers and young adults know the seriousness of COVID-19.

As COVID-19 cases continue to spread in Bexar County, the City of San Antonio and others are trying to get their prevention messages across to a younger crowd.

People in their 20s have the highest number of cases of any age group in the county, according to data on the city’s website from July 11 - the most recent update as of Friday. There’s a focused effort to reach out to them and “get content in their hands,” said city spokeswoman Laura Mayes, though the message is the same for everybody.

“It’s ‘stay home when you can, wear a mask when you can’t and maintain social distance,’” she said.

But the methods may vary as officials try to reach different groups where they are. It was one reason for an Independence Day weekend phone alert, reminding residents of the new mask order.

“We know that most people in that age group are glued to their cell phones. So if they don’t hear the news on a news station or they don’t follow us on Facebook, we wanted to make sure that they got the message straight to their cell phones,” Mayes said.

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The same weekend, the city used a targeted Facebook ad that played off a common meme format. “This could be us but you won’t wear a mask,” the ad reads over pictures of people boating, eating, and watching fireworks.

“This could be us but you won’t wear a mask” the ad reads over pictures of people boating, eating, and watching fireworks. (City of San Antonio)

Then there have been the Facebook videos featuring Coach Pop and Patty Mills preaching the need for social distancing and wearing masks.

Another idea has come out of the COVID-19 Community Response Coalition, which was formed by the city, to get the message out through “peer influencers.” These influencers would be people with larger online followings who would agree to create content related to the “three P’s”: preventing transmission, protecting yourself and loved ones, and providing information to contact tracers.

The Co-chair of the Education and Enforcement Work Group in the coalition and an assistant professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio, Jason Rosenfeld, said the group believes this is better than a top-down approach since the message, “is coming from somebody within your own peer group at somebody that, you know, you respect, that looks like you, that talks like you, that moves within your social circle.”

One such influencer is Christina Jovanna Olivarez, who goes by the handle, “The Social Butterfly Gal” on Instagram, after the name of her social media strategy company.

Olivarez posted Thursday about her own experience dealing with her parents catching COVID-19 and urged her followers to “Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash Your Hands. If it’s possible, stay home. Avoid gatherings.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Olivarez said she had already been posting about wearing masks before she was contacted.

“The campaign that they were doing aligned with my values and personally what I was going through,” she said.

The city has also hired a marketing agency to create a targeted outreach campaign based on the same “three Ps” concept, focused on different groups, including younger people. The campaign is expected to be rolled out within a few weeks.

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