Katelyn Van Dyke was on winter break in January, visiting her boyfriend’s family, when she got sick with Covid-19.
For the 20-year-old computer science major at the University of Missouri, Covid-19 has been anything but a brief or easy illness.
Some 10 months later, she says she’s still out of breath just walking up the stairs of her dorm an unxpected turn for someone who played on the varsity soccer team in high school. She says her brain is still so foggy she has trouble processing information and has to write everything on Post-it notes, or she’ll forget it. She can’t even remember the first dates she had with her boyfriend.
“Even though I can see that they happened, and I can hear about them,” she says through tears looking straight into camera, “I can’t get those back.”
Van Dyke shares her emotional story in a new ad campaign released Tuesday as a part of the “Voices of Long Covid” campaign, an effort from Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative from the global health organization Vital Strategies.
Van Dyke is one of three people in their 20s who share their long Covid struggles the ads, several in English and one is also in Spanish. For some people, the ads may be the first time they hear about long Covid, a condition with a wide range of new or ongoing health problems that can appear regardless of how sick a person is with their initial Covid-19 infection.
Public health leaders hope people, particularly young people, will hear these stories and get vaccinated.
Younger people are among some of the least-vaccinated people in the US.
Surveys from earlier this year found that some younger people hadn’t gotten the vaccine because they just haven’t gotten around to it yet, some thought others needed it more than they did. Telling people about the potential long-term consequences of Covid-19 may be the exact motivation they need to get protected.
“We basically looked at what has been effective in public health campaigns and what we find is generally, it’s not telling people they’re going to die. Its generally people seeing the stories of real-life people whose lives are negatively impacted. Who have significant disability from a condition,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. “Those real-life stories are convincing because they are real life stories.”
Ads that expose a person to something that sounds scary can work, studies show. One study looking at “fear appeals” – as they are called in the literature – found that when used judiciously, “fear appeals are effective at positively influencing attitude, intentions, and behaviors; there are very few circumstances under which they are not effective; and there are no identified circumstances under which they backfire,” according to a 2015 study.
Similar public health campaigns that explain the consequences of risky health behavior have been used to prevent HIV infection and to encourage people to stop smoking.
Scientists still can’t predict who will get long Covid, but think more than half of those who survive Covid-19 have some lingering psychological or physical health problem for six months or more after they recover from their initial bout of illness, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open Saturday. So far there is no cure and it’s unclear how long people will have symptoms.
The unknowns are part of what bothers Rob Smith, a 22-year-old featured in one of the ads in which he says he struggles with brain fog and doesn’t even have the energy to see his friends.
“It makes them feel like I don’t want to see them or I’m angry at them,” he says in the ad. “I don’t know what’s really going on with me or if I will ever recover or if anyone even cares if I recover. I don’t know”
Isaiah Smith, a 26-year-old US Air Force veteran and part-time student caught Covid-19 more than a year ago still can’t lift anything over 5 pounds.
“This has honestly been a very scary journey,” he says in the ad. “How can I adjust my life for this?”
The campaign will target states and cities with low vaccination rates including Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Montana, Missouri, Indiana, Alabama and Louisiana.
Alyson Neel, director of communications at Louisiana Department of Health, says she’s happy to add the ads to a rotation of spots that feature personal stories that the state is running on several platforms.
“People want to hear from people who look like them and who have similar backgrounds, everyday people,” Neel said. “Young people especially don’t want to hear this from elected officials. We’re humble enough at the Louisiana Department of Health to know that we’re not always the right messenger.”
People can’t get vaccinated soon enough, she says.
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“About 280,000 18 to 29-year-olds have gone sleeves up already in Louisiana, it’s good news, but we need that to be higher,” Neel said. She said at least 105 18 to 29-year-olds in Louisiana have died from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. “Even one of those deaths is too many, but 105 of deaths is a lot, a lot of preventable deaths. We want to make sure young people know whether it’s long-Covid or a more severe outcome, no one is immune to Covid and its impact.”