Baltimore City Health Department COVID vaccine memes go viral

The city of Baltimore wanted to meet people to provide information about COVID-19 vaccinations, so they turned to social media and used memes that included hilarious conversation while debunking myths.

And in the past few weeks, the city’s news has gone viral with positive results, according to Adam Abadir, director of communications for the Baltimore City Department of Health.

“We can be authentic, we can be funny, and we can reach people we couldn’t otherwise reach,” Abadir said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the health department used more standard communication to spread information about COVID-19, vaccinations and harm reduction principles.

After social media users contacted friends and family with questions about communicating safety principles, members of the health department scratched their heads – until a viral moment triggered the lightbulb.

In January, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott caught media attention when he said to a man, “Briefly, put on your mask, man.”

The video of the incident set social media on fire, and suddenly the health department had a new strategy.

“I remember walking around town and people saying, ‘Shorty, put your mask on,'” Abadir said. “For me it meant that we could be authentic in our communication, but also creatively bring the principles of harm reduction closer to the residents.”

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Many of the conversations used in the memes were conversations the health department knew people were having, according to Benjamin Jancewicz, an advisor to the department.

“[Residents] dealing with friends and members who went to parties and other things they shouldn’t be doing but didn’t have the language to communicate the damage, so we turned some of those into memes, “he said.

The memes show people discussing going to a house party or getting mimosas, and they also pick up some common misconceptions about what will help or harm you.

The first memes were out in early April or late May, with the department creating a new one every few weeks. Some of them were shared in the same post which, according to Abadir, has really made an impact.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been a few trolls,” he said.

In response to a troll who said his keto diet of kale salads kept him COVID-19 free, the department turned it into a meme.

“We got into trolls by showing how ridiculous they are, but that kind of humor disarms them,” Jancewicz said. “We have had several cases where we were confronted with trolls and they said, ‘This is really funny.'”

Other cities have used different tactics, like the Los Angeles Dodgers offering two free play tokens to those who visit their mobile vaccination clinic during a seven-game home stand.

The state of Louisiana has partnered with companies to offer free alcoholic or soft drinks to people who can show they have been vaccinated within the last seven days, according to the National Governors Association.

For Baltimore, Abadir hopes the memes will make people laugh, but also become friends and family members who are not vaccinated.

“Memes are the language of the internet and we need to be part of that conversation,” Abadir said. “Not everyone will laugh at every joke, but what we’re talking about is really important for people to hear.”

There’s no way for the department to know if the memes are directly linked to people receiving the vaccine, but Baltimore’s increase in residents receiving the vaccine is consistently one of the highest in Maryland, according to Abadir.

“We want to acknowledge that there is a lot at stake,” said Abadir. “We are humble about the attention we get online, but the work goes on.”

Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: agilbert@usatoday.com.

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