February 26, 2021
Masked young adults key to beating COVID in the long term
Alex Meacham

Looking to the future: high school seniors Cameron Morrow, left, and Casey McEvoy mask up to stay healthy and help stop the spread of COVID-19. Young adults are the target audience for a new mask-wearing awareness campaign being launched by Whatcom County. (Krista Morrow photo © 2021)

February 26, 2021
Masked young adults key to beating COVID in the long term
Alex Meacham

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This winter, the number of COVID-19 cases in Whatcom County spiked among young adults. Why? County officials think the spike is due to young adults not taking precautions in private, and the county will spend $200,000 on a campaign to influence young adults to adopt safer COVID-19 behaviors. 

Based on a survey conducted last September showing that traditional messaging doesn’t work for young adults, the county will use peer-to-peer messaging to carry the most up-to-date information on what young people can do to stay healthy and help end the pandemic. 

In July, the Associated Students of Western Washington University (ASWWU) started a public health campaign to increase compliance with masking, social distancing and other antiviral methods among students at the university. 

By January, Whatcom County had decided to start their own campaign. Theirs, however, would have to reach all young adults in the county. Instead of a traditional information campaign, it would utilize social information sharing, which the survey showed would be far more effective in getting young adults to comply. 

Spokane-based DH Marketing, which audited the ASWWU campaign, was chosen for the county’s campaign. DH Marketing developed a plan that includes building a website, Instagram page and partner connections with local businesses.

Starting on campus

Hunter Stuehm, communications director for the ASWWU, came up with the campus campaign. In conversation with other communications departments in the university, he found it was best to communicate with students about the virus from a nonauthoritative perspective. 

A public health campaign presented last fall by the Associated Students of Western Washington University offered a wide variety of messages, including encouragement of self-care during a time of economic hardship and high emotional impact; above a sample of the campaign’s images posted on Instagram.

Students were “facing unique challenges and struggles through the pandemic,” Stuehm said — many dealing with mental health, economic and social challenges — that weren’t being addressed through most official channels.

Stuehm’s insights were confirmed by the county’s survey which found “that young adults ages 18-26 are facing large economic hardships, reporting higher rates of unemployment and underemployment;” and that “the emotional state of young adults in the county is also negatively impacted in a disproportionate manner.” 

Making choices, taking risks

Darrien, a 22-year-old student, predicted “it will be harder to go through a second summer, and I’m sure there will be precautions breaking down.”

In the survey, only 40.8% of young adults reported physical distancing in private and 44.7% of young adults reported mask wearing when around friends and family they do not live with.

In contrast, 67.2% of adults 27 and over reported social distancing in private and 57.7% reported wearing masks in private.

Overall, more than 81.2% of all people surveyed also reported compliance with other actions, like avoiding public gatherings, wearing masks in public, and socially distancing in public. 

For many young adults in the area, some risks are acceptable. Some, like Peter Dyer, 20, of Bellingham, accept that there’s a certain amount of trust in a close-knit group. When going out, he always wears a mask, even just walking with nobody else around. But around his friends, he chooses not to. “That’s perhaps the riskiest thing I do. There’s a certain level of trust in it. Around my family when I visit them, I don’t wear a mask — again something else that is risky, but I try to get tested before I go back home.”

The survey attributes low adherence to masking and distance precautions in private to young adults feeling “unnatural” with family and friends or feeling uncomfortable controlling the behavior others by asking others to take preventative actions. 

The power of peers — and of science

Emily, 21, of Mercer Island, said that she’s gained some confidence with asking people around her to be safer. “At the beginning of last year, I felt guilty, like I had to rationalize why I wasn’t comfortable doing something. Now I’m confident in setting hard boundaries and that’s been really beneficial for us!”

The survey recommended that messaging meant to increase compliance among young adults should not come from official sources. The young adults surveyed had a high level of trust in science-based sources, but weren’t getting information from those same sources. The report said that student groups and peers would be much more effective means to transmit up-to-date information. 

Based on this report and the ASWWU campaign, the county established its COVID-19 In Real Life (IRL) campaign.

Jennifer Moon, Whatcom County Health Department communications specialist, said that the county has provided scientific information to the ASWWU for their campaign, and the campus campaign was created and carried out entirely by the students

Fighting high infection rates

Young adults have consistently been one of the groups with the highest levels of COVID-19 infections and transmission in Whatcom County and nationally, according to Schuyler Shelloner, a spokesperson for the health department. Social gatherings were determined to be a significant factor in transmission among this age group nationally. 

Washington state data does confirm that teens and younger adults are consistently among the highest case totals per week in Whatcom County, despite the extremely low case totals of recent weeks. 

Michael Dean, DH Marketing’s project manager for this campaign, said that because young adults will be among the last groups to be vaccinated and returned to a normal lifestyle, he hopes the campaign can have impacts elsewhere.

“What are other [things] they can do to help their parents [and] older community members get the vaccine earlier? Can they help them sign up? Can they help them navigate the website or whatever it is? So just hoping the campaign delivers some, some guidance and some positive behaviors,” said Dean. 

Building on the campus plan

According to census data, 17% of Whatcom county residents are 20-29, the highest percentage of all age subsets in the county. Shelloner said that young adults aren’t engaging with traditional communication channels. “Basically, we needed help reaching this group,” he said. 

Younger population groups have risen to the top in State of Washington data illustrating infection trends among various age groups.

According to Stuehm, the ASWWU campaign’s goal was to “provide students with modeling and information on navigating COVID in real life, acknowledging some of the individual struggles that 18- to 27-year-olds are facing as an age range.” 

The county’s campaign will continue this work, according to Dean. “In December, we met with the AS group, for them to present it to us and show us kind of the research that they built it off of and talk through their process, and we consulted with them a couple more times. And we will continue to use that resource to ensure that it’s in line with the original spirit of their vision and their campaign.”

DH Marketing has worked on a similar project for Central Washington University and the Washington State Department of Health. Their $200,000 contract is funded through the local administration of the Federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. According to Moon, DH Marketing is familiar with local issues through previous work with the Whatcom Transit Authority and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The contract was presented to the county council and passed 5-2 on Feb. 23, with councilmembers Tyler Byrd and Ben Elenbaas voting no. Byrd, who represents District 3, said, “I’d prefer we spend the money on something tangible, like rental assistance or utility assistance.” 

The contract may be extended by one year at a time, for no more than three years, or ended whenever the council feels it is in the interests of the county. It also cannot be subcontracted.

Showing, not top-down telling

In their memo describing their recommendations for the campaign, DH Marketing suggest three main strategies for “evolving the campaign to a broader audience.”

  • Maintain the energy and tone of the original campaign’s use of expletives in situations where explicative are not appropriate/allowed. 
  • Authentically model positive behaviors while maintaining the tone of the original campaign.
  • Avoid message carriers from authoritative bodies to maintain the peer-to-peer energy of the campaign.

To avoid the top-down feel most official communication carries, the campaign will partner with community members, businesses, and students to help spread messages. Messaging will maintain the same energy of the campus campaign in a context that is more official, said Dean. 

According to Dean, the campaign will also focus on showing positive behaviors, rather than telling what positive behaviors are. 

DH Marketing is developing plans for animated paid advertisements to be displayed online, and collateral materials like posters that local businesses and organizations could display, Dean said. They are also planning on launching by next month and continuing through the Spring.

The campaign specifically targets young adults. The most effective platforms are social media channels such as Instagram and Snapchat; streaming entertainment (Whatcom residents are 65% more likely to have watched a TV show in the last 30 days than the average American); and local businesses. 

If local businesses decline to participate, the campaign will advertise in 10 convenience stores/gas stations, because young adults in Whatcom are six times more likely to have consumed an energy drink in the last seven days compared to the average American.

The campaign contract also includes other deliverables, such as a partner database of schools, student clubs, micro influencers for social media channels, a website, flyers and window clings.

According to Dean, the campaign is “structured in a way to kind of refresh the messaging every month.” 

“We don’t know what April’s going to bring yet so we can be more agile and adjust as needed to the situation,” said Dean.

Dean said that the campaign’s strategy is to provide some positive behaviors for young adults for them to help wrap up this pandemic. This follows the September survey finding that ending the pandemic was one of the most motivating factors for people in this age group to have better mask habits and pandemic restriction compliance.

Will this campaign make a difference? Although the campaign does not have specific measures to see how much young adult private behavior changes as a result of this effort, the risk of infection young adults face will remain until they are vaccinated, long after their elders.