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Coronavirus: Alberta continues to struggle with public health messaging to young adults

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WATCH ABOVE: Younger Albertans made up the majority of new cases in the province from Aug. 18 to 24. The government is pleading with them to take the coronavirus seriously but there are concerns that the messaging may be falling on deaf ears. Julia Wong explains.

More than 50 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Alberta from the past week are coming from youth and young adults, and questions are being raised about what is being done to better target this particular demographic.

According to data from the province, 356 of the 666 new cases – or 53 per cent – reported from Aug. 18 to Aug. 24 fell between the ages of 10 and 39 years old.

READ MORE: Spike in Alberta COVID-19 cases in younger people cause for concern: Hinshaw

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Aug. 10 that the province is looking at what can be done to reach different age groups and better understand what is standing in the way of their ability to follow public health guidance.

On Monday, Hinshaw had a specific message to young adults.

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“You are less likely to have severe outcomes from a COVID-19 infection but because of the way this virus is spreading in your age group, you are now more likely to pass on this virus unknowingly and to do so rapidly.

“We’re seeing this in Edmonton right now,” she said.

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However, it is isn’t clear if this messaging is working or falling on deaf ears.

Batyr Ng, 22, is a graduate student at the University of Alberta. He has been trying to distance when out in public and wear a mask when inside.

He said the province is warning Albertans in general about COVID-19 but not his age group specifically.

“I haven’t seen any particular ad or any particular kind of information that’s been tailored towards the young population,” he said.

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Kaitlyn Carter, 21, said she is taking the virus seriously, citing a mother and sister who are immune-compromised but she can’t say the same for others in her demographic.

“I do think some people still aren’t fully grasping the severity of it or how transferable the disease is,” she said.

Teenagers say they aren’t sure whether the government’s messaging to them specifically has been effective.

“I feel like they’re not really speaking to us. I feel like it’s young people that speak to young people,” said Charlotte McInulty.

“There have been a couple messages directed to us but they’re also shaming us in a way for, like, going out and hanging out with our friends,” said Vianne Amini-Arthurson.

Gary McCarron, associate professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, said public health messaging may have worked when the country was in initial phases of the pandemic but that may have changed as the economy started to re-open.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Stage 2 of Alberta relaunch takes effect Friday, earlier than expected

The difficulties in spreading public health guidance to young people is not new. McCarron said, historically, there were challenges getting messages out to young people during the HIV/AIDS crisis. He also referenced more recent issues with warning this age group about the opioid crisis.

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McCarron said young people are typically more resistant to authority, citing a theory called psychological reactants.

“People do tend to resist when they feel that their autonomy, their individual liberty or their freedom is being infringed upon by some kind of expertise or some type of authority figure,” he said.

McCarron added it appears strongest in two year olds – thus the “terrible twos” – and in young adults.

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He explained that messages to young adults should therefore not be heavy-handed or didactic.

“It has to be organized in such a way that it’s going to have an inherent appeal to young people. That comes down to stripping away some of the informational content and focusing more on affect – creating a message, in other words, that has a little bit more of an emotional resonance.”

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Read more: Canada’s coronavirus patients getting younger as pandemic moves west

There have been messages to young people about how they could potential spread the virus to other, more vulnerable Albertans. McCarron said that may also be difficult for that age group to grasp, particularly because they are more likely to be motivated by a fear of loss compared to the prospect of gain and because many believe themselves to be invulnerable.

“That’s a harder message to get across when you’re talking about illness…seeing yourself as somebody who is a source of transmission, that’s more intellectually challenging thing to think about.

“I think that’s where it gets harder and harder to change people’s behaviours.”

Read more: Why one expert says B.C. fumbled its coronavirus message to young people

Dr. Peter Ryan, an assistant professor in public relations at Mount Royal University, said message fatigue may have settled in on young people. Ryan said it is hard for that age group to stay at home after months of being alone, particularly if they are not living with vulnerable people.

“Those young adults, teenagers have the most unsupervised social mobility of any age demographics but they might not have the most up-to-date information to make the most informed health choices,” he said.

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Ryan said conflicting messages may have played in a role in young people following public health guidance, citing the initial confusion over whether masks should be worn.

He further said young adults are struggling with the notion they could spread the disease to those who are at risk.

“Teenagers, young adults are weighing it against who they’re going to go see, especially if they’re living on their own already. They’re making decisions about who they’re hanging out with, who they’re seeing and they might not be as worried if their friends are acting the same,” he said.

Lauren Holmes, 22, from Ontario founded the website partyresponsibly.ca after seeing concerning social media activity of young people gathering and partying.

The website, which launched in June, explains what the gathering restrictions are in the different provinces and is intended to help youth safely meet during the pandemic.

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Holmes said she started the website because she did not feel provincial governments were doing a good job of resonating with young people.

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“I think it’s a reactive response rather than a proactive response, which is an issue,” she said.

“Youth aren’t going to listen to people telling them not to gather, party at all. That’s just not going to happen and it hasn’t been happening.”

Holmes said governments have been talking at youth, rather than to them.

“They’re…telling them that they’re being irresponsible and telling them it’s all the youth’s fault. It doesn’t sit well with people being blamed, I don’t think, in any age demographic,” she said.

Read more: Young people are causing COVID-19 spikes. But are they solely to blame?

She said it will be important to alter or fix messaging to young people before school resumes.

“They’re going to have more time on their hands because classes are mostly remote. Kids, again, they want to see their friends. They want to have something to do. With all the time on their hands, there is going to be house parties, people are going to be going out,” Holmes said.

Possible solutions

Ryan, the public relations professor, said it will be important to reinforce public health messaging as the province moves into the fall, which carries a potential of a second wave.

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He suggests using social media influencers, celebrities or sports figures, such as hockey players, to relay important public health messaging to young people. He said parents and employers of young people can also play an important role in reinforcing public health guidance.

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McCarron, the SFU communication professor, said messaging to young people is complicated by the fact that they do not watch, listen or read traditional news media. He said social media may be a better avenue to reach this age group.

“What makes it more effective, of course, is it does tend not to be heavy on information, heavy on teaching. It is not a modality or system that lectures to people.

“It does tend to create, instead, memes. These memorable short videos or slogans – those are the things people remember,” he said.

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“If you can get a message that goes viral, that’s far more effective than having a health officer standing on a platform, instead of a television camera when frankly the demographic you’re trying to reach isn’t even watching.”

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