Patrons walking into Flanigan’s Boathouse in Conshohocken on Thursday night were met by a coronavirus Cupid hoping to help them find a date — not with another person, but at a vaccine clinic.
Clad in a fire-engine-red dress with white feather wings, Nia Ferguson handed out swag bags containing condoms, shot glasses, and temporary tattoos bearing mottos such as “Vaxxed and waxed,” a catchphrase millennials have used to describe their readiness to date this summer.
The swag urged young people — whose vaccination rate lags compared with other age groups — to get immunized so they can socialize safely and find their “shot at love.” Up on the bar, drink coasters sported the slogan “Free Shots” and held a QR code linking to Montgomery County’s website to sign up for the vaccine.
“It’s a great idea, especially with the delta variant ramping up and things going back where they were,” said Meghan O’Neil, a 36-year-old from Conshohocken who sat at the bar — and who got immunized back in April. “It’s important for everyone to get out there and get vaccinated.”
The pop-up event at the Fayette Street bar was the second of four planned this month in the county, and part of a wider campaign aimed at younger adults. On apps like Tinder and Bumble and in online ads, Cupid — equipped with a bow and vaccine-syringe arrow — urges singles: “Don’t miss your shot at love. Get vaxxed today in Montco, PA.” In other advertisements on social media, teens and millennials are reminded: “Don’t procrastinate; vaccinate.”
“This could be their summer, but they can’t get back to normal dating and normal contact with folks unless they get vaccinated,” said Gary Greenberg, executive creative director of the advertising agency Brownstein, which developed the campaign, funded by federal COVID-19 relief aid, for the county and the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board.
It’s one of various ways public health officials across the region and country are trying to get the attention of younger people as their vaccination rate stagnates — and the delta variant sends new infections climbing steadily higher.
In Chester and Philadelphia, teen ambassadors are working on persuading their peers, including on TikTok and Instagram, while Delaware County is blitzing social media and billboards with promotions.
It’s a hard sell, made even harder by misperceptions about the risks that the virus poses to young people. Public health leaders say they are trying to dispel the notion that younger people can’t get sick — which has led many to dismiss the vaccine — and remind them they can spread the virus even if their case lacks symptoms.
Outside of Philadelphia, 99% of Pennsylvanians over 65 have received at least one dose; when the total population is considered, the proportion drops to 67%, according to the CDC. Of those, people between 15 and 34 have vaccination rates in the 40% range, state data show.
In announcing the commonwealth’s first vaccine mandate for certain state workers, Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday said “the younger generation” was “the place where we’re lagging.”
It’s a similar picture in Philadelphia, where 53% of 18-to-44-year-olds have received at least one vaccine dose, compared with 68% of those 45 to 64 and 77% of those 65 to 74.
Most young people at Flanigan’s Boathouse were already vaccinated. One, Ryan Henzes, 29, said he thought it would become increasingly hard to socialize without being immunized. He predicted that the more restaurants, bars, and other venues require vaccination, the harder it will be to resist. Making it “impact their social life” is a good strategy to get more people his age to get the shot, he said.
“I think that their minds will change,” Henzes said of his few friends who remain opposed to the vaccine. “I think what’s gonna happen is it’s gonna affect their social life.”
Vaccine mandates are beginning to multiply across the region. Unveiling the city’s plan to reinstate mandatory indoor masking except in businesses that require proof of vaccination, acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said Wednesday she hoped those measures would spur people to get shots.
A week earlier, she had said Philadelphians ages 20 to 34 had the highest rates of new cases, and many of them were Black. With only 31% of Black adults under 45 partially or fully vaccinated, there’s a wide vaccination gap between Black millennials and those of other races, even as older Black adults catch up with or surpass white adults in the city.
“The group we particularly need to reach the most is young adults,” Bettigole said. “We’re hoping that this combination of vaccine mandates [and] masking will help to encourage that.”
‘Race against time’
Abby Kraus, a 29-year-old pharmacist from Conshohocken, said she got vaccinated for a simple reason: “It’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to kill anybody.”
Though the Philadelphia region has not been hit hard by any delta outbreaks to date, July saw an uptick in hospitalizations nationwide that included an increase in the number of children and teens. Children under 12 still are not eligible for vaccination; as trials continue, FDA authorization is possible by midwinter.
Thanks to the spread of the delta variant, more 20- and 30-year-olds are showing up at hospital emergency rooms across the country, according to a growing number of reports. And some physicians say their young coronavirus patients seem to be getting sicker more quickly than they were earlier in the pandemic, although there is no conclusive evidence on that point.
Some area hospitals reported no marked change in the ages of coronavirus patients as August began, but at Jefferson University Hospitals, patients have been skewing younger, said John Zurlo, chief of infectious disease and chair of the COVID-19 clinical task force. He said it’s likely because their vaccination rate is lower.
In the predominantly Black and Latino Delaware County city of Chester, where low vaccine uptake among young people has contributed heavily to the low rate overall, the city and county have also been working to draw teens and millennials.
Bettigole said Philadelphia continues working with community partners to reach African American residents with neighborhood-centered efforts, noting vaccinations are rising but slowly.
“It’s a race against time with the vaccine, trying to vaccinate that population and protect them before this spreads through them,” she said last week.
Seeking their attention
Market research showed that many unvaccinated young people aren’t necessarily opposed to vaccination; they have simply put off getting the shot, Greenberg said. In addition to the dating-focused campaign, another uses the slogan “Don’t procrastinate; vaccinate” and reminds people that if they have time to spend on social media, they have time to get a shot.
“People weren’t for or against it either way,” Greenberg said the research showed of many people in the 20-to-30 range. “They found other things to do instead. It wasn’t a priority.”
Last month, the White House invited 18-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo to speak about the importance of getting vaccinated. Now the Biden administration is enlisting social media influencers. Other places have launched similar campaigns, including Colorado and Baltimore, where the health department’s Twitter account has gained attention for clapping back at anti-vaccine commenters.
“The most important message that needs to go out to the 20- and 30-somethings out there is this: You could feel perfectly well, and be infected with the virus and make someone else critically ill or worse,” said Delaware County medical adviser Lisa O’Mahony. “This is about looking beyond yourself and considering the impact … on others.”
At the bar in Conshohocken, Kevin Holcombe and Jenna Hunt, both 31, said vaccination is a normal conversation topic these days, so they didn’t have to explicitly ask whether the other was immunized when they began dating.
“Would you date me if I wasn’t vaccinated?” asked Holcombe, who carries his vaccination card in his wallet.
Hunt raised her eyebrows doubtfully before the couple began laughing. “It would change a lot of things,” she said.
Staff writers Jason Laughlin, Erin McCarthy, and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.