Kansas City’s sports stars could be key to convincing thousands to get COVID-19 vaccine, expert says

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Are pictures of nurses, politicians and senior citizens getting the COVID-19 vaccine enough to change the minds of the quarter of Americans who say they won’t get the immunization?

Or are there other influencers in the community who could better connect with vaccine skeptics and convince them to get the pandemic-stopping shots? 

“Celebrities have high social status in our society,” Dr. Chelsea Platt, assistant professor of sociology at Park University, told FOX4. “This social position allows celebrities to use their social status to enact social change. This could be another strategy used to promote the COVID vaccine.” 

A game-changer

In the Kansas City area, Platt said a public service campaign that featured local, professional athletes like Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes could be a game-changer in the effort for widespread COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“Patrick Mahomes is one of the most recognizable celebrities in Kansas City,” she said. “And in the past he has used this status to encourage voting, transforming Arrowhead into a voting location, and for the Black Lives Matter movement.  

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) smiles during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

“The Chiefs and Mahomes could be one of the leaders in a public health campaign encouraging vaccination,” she added. “Seeing the players get the vaccine could have an influence on the community at large.” 

Those players’ images on television, billboards and social media platforms have the power to shift the publics’ perspective of the COVID-19 vaccine, Platt said. Among some segments of the community, they could be potentially more powerful than similar images and messages from medical professionals. 

“The general idea is to influence an individual’s health choice (and) the information must come from a trusted source,” Platt said. “This is not always a doctor or health official. Employing those already respected in the community to deliver the health information can be an effective strategy to change behavior.” 

Platt said many factors influence a person’s health behavior, including the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Individuals must have the health knowledge and the ability to enact the positive health behavior,” she said. “(But) there are several barriers for each of these.” 

The first is trust.  

Some people — especially those in minority communities — don’t trust medical experts or the health information they receive. 

A lack of trust

In a December 2020 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 35% of Black adults said they probably or definitely would not get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Why the hesitancy among those individuals, who have experienced a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 cases? 

According to the KFF survey, 47% of Black adults don’t trust vaccines in general and 50% percent are worried they may get COVID-19 from the shot.  

Dr. Michelle Chester draws the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, Pool)

KFF said those findings are telling about the Black community’s perspective toward vaccines and suggest “that messages combatting particular types of misinformation may be especially important for increasing vaccine confidence among this group.” 

KFF’s survey also found that hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine runs along political party lines, among certain age groups, and in specific geographic areas. 

 “About a quarter (27%) of the public remains vaccine-hesitant, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists,” the survey said. “Vaccine hesitancy is highest among Republicans (42%), those ages 30-49 (36%), and rural residents (35%).  

Addressing the issue

Those findings don’t surprise Platt. 

 “The politicization of COVID and the vaccine shifts how people view health experts and what is trustworthy health information,” Platt said. “ Additionally, the mistreatment, abuse, and history of racism in medicine impacts trust in health experts and information for people of color.” 

But there are strategies, she said, to overcome those trust issues. 

“There are several ways to address the issue of trusting information about the COVID vaccine,” Platt said. “Utilizing respected leaders to share the information about the vaccine may be a more trusted source for some. Political leaders, community leaders, and religious leaders may be trusted more than the medical experts or the media.  

She added: “Diversifying where the health information is coming from may help individuals gain the understanding of the risk and benefits of the vaccine more effectively.” 

Campaigning for the vaccine

FOX4 asked Kansas City’s professional sports teams if they planned to launch public service campaigns to encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Kansas City Royals said the club is “brainstorming ways to support this message,” but doesn’t have a specific campaign in place.  

“We are certainly aware of the issue,” the Royals’ Kyle Vena, vice-president of Community Impact, told FOX4. “We are currently looking into ways to best support the messaging.” 

Sporting KC said it promoted several COVID-19 health initiatives throughout 2020 that included PSA’s about social distancing and wearing a mask. 

“The team is currently in the middle of our offseason, so we have not had a chance to strategize surrounding these initiatives in 2021 as of yet,” spokesman Patrik Bergabo said. “But it will certainly be on the docket when the team returns in January/February.” 

The Kansas City Chiefs did not respond to our questions. 

FOX4 also asked Kansas and Missouri health department officials about their COVID-19 vaccine public service campaigns.  

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said it launched a “Stronger Together” campaign in November. The digital and social media campaign doesn’t feature celebrities or athletes, but its website includes a “Get The Facts” section that dispels myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Photo Courtesy: Alec Gartner, KSNT-TV

A spokeswoman said the state also plans to soon air television commercials in Kansas City and St. Louis and expand to other markets as more people become eligible for the vaccine. 

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said there are “different public health campaigns in development,” but won’t discuss specifics until a later date. 

Platt, however, warned the states shouldn’t wait too long to roll out their COVID-19 vaccine campaigns. 

“We have been waiting for months for the vaccine and even though it has arrived the rollout is slow,” she said. “Our default mindset is that I won’t be getting (the) vaccination today and who knows when I will actually be able to get the vaccine. This can be a barrier to getting the vaccine.”  

To change that mindset, Platt suggested the state develop plans for people to sign up for the vaccine or make public pledges to get the shot. 

“(That) could be an effective social media campaign targeting younger populations who will likely be last in line to receive the vaccine,” she said. 

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