“Anybody else out running in the rain?” asks a drenched but gleeful Louie Michael in a TikTok video, before starting to sing, “I have been blessed.”
The Missouri-based entertainer and real estate agent had ample reason to be celebrating. He was “about forty days past covid” when he made the video on July 17, and his only persistent symptom was hives. The disease had landed both he and his wife, Pattie Bunch, in the hospital.
Michael has been documenting various milestones of his recovery on TikTok, including a clip in which he belts out Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to showcase the return of his voice.
Mostly, though, he’s used social media to urge people to get the vaccine – because he didn’t and now knows the consequences.
“I was just one of those that was on the fence about the covid shot,” he says in one video. “If I could avoid what I’ve been going through for the last three, four weeks, I would have got the shot long before now.”
He stresses that getting vaccinated should be a personal choice, but his message is blunt. “Get that vaccination if you can,” he says in another. “You don’t want to go through this. It’s horrible.”
Regret has become a new tool in the battle against the coronavirus. As media outlets pump out story after story of people who fell ill only to wish they’d gotten vaccinated, individuals and health institutions are sharing similar stories across social media platforms in hopes they will persuade at least some of the tens of millions of Americans who remain unvaccinated to have a change of heart and get the shot.
Dolores Albarracín, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies human behaviors related to health, said that approach can be effective if the messages are “sincere” and “not preaching,” particularly if the advocate and the viewer share similar demographics. A White, working-class male who underwent a conversion, for example, might be able to connect with other White, working-class males who are opposed to getting vaccinated.
“This is at least a new approach that goes beyond the repeated instructions to vaccinate and fear appeals we see in the media,” she said.
Travis Campbell, a 43-year-old Bristol, Va., retail worker and former police officer, has turned his Facebook page into a video diary in which he chronicles his battle with the coronavirus, pneumonia and a partially collapsed lung since late July.
Instead of shying away from the harsh realities of the disease, he places a spotlight on them, discussing the panic attacks brought on by the virus and the fact that “you will use the bathroom on yourself constantly because you can’t control yourself.”
“I’m not trying to talk down to you,” he says in one video. His speech is labored, and he’s hooked up to oxygen tank. “I’m trying to talk to you to let you understand that I don’t want to go to your funeral, and I don’t want you to come to mine. The new delta strain attacks those who didn’t get vaccinated. And it’s faster. And I was negligent by not taking my family and myself serious and getting vaccinated.”
One of the more prominent public displays of regret came from Nashville conservative talk show host Phil Valentine, who had long questioned the vaccine.
“I’m just using common sense. What are my odds of getting COVID? They’re pretty low. What are my odds of dying from COVID if I do get it? Probably way less than one percent,” he wrote on his blog in December 2020.
He contracted the coronavirus in mid-July, was brought to the hospital and placed in critical care.
Phil’s brother, Mark, made a post on his Facebook page on his behalf days later that read, in part, “Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘Pro-Vaccine,’ and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon.”
“Please continue to pray for his recovery and PLEASE GO GET VACCINATED!” he added.
On Monday, Super Talk 99-7 WTN posted to Facebook that Phil “remains critically ill.”
“It’s not easy to say that we were maybe mistaken initially,” said Kaitlyn McConnell, the systems director of public relations at CoxHealth, a nonprofit health system in southwest Missouri. “It’s extremely brave.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, McConnell’s team has used YouTube to share stories and images from the medical front lines in their six hospitals. Once vaccines were available, they began asking people who expressed regret at not receiving one to tell their stories.
A recent video features 42-year-old Russell Taylor, speaking from a hospital bed and wearing a medical gown.
“I was one of those Americans that was, like, skeptical, not knowing who you can trust. So I just pulled back and took a stance of, ‘If God allows it, then it must be,’ ” he says in the clip, before describing how he then caught the coronavirus, which led to double pneumonia and a three-week hospital stay. “I really thought I was going to die.”
“I don’t see how I could not” get the vaccine now, he added. “My stance is God made medicine, too.”
The TriCounty Health Department, which serves northeast Utah, has employed a similar tactic, with a focus on highlighting that the coronavirus is not “just a cold” and can produce lasting negative effects.
In one video, a Utah hospital-clinic administrator named Stormy describes how she was vocally against the vaccine – “Everybody at the hospital knew I was not getting the vaccine,” she says – and eventually contracted the coronavirus, fought double pneumonia and sepsis and was left with lasting health conditions. In the video, Stormy says she is not sharing her last name in fear that people with anti-vaccine views would accuse her of lying.
“I don’t get to participate in things I did prior. I don’t get to ride bikes with my children,” she says. “I have these long-lasting conditions that I pray will go away one day. But right now, I can’t walk up a flight of stairs without my heart rate jumping up to the 150s and being winded. And that’s just a flight of stairs. I still cannot taste or smell . . . And I’m still so thankful to be here.”
“Data and statistics work for people who think analytically,” said Kirk Benge, the TriCounty Health Department director. “But for others, understanding the entire situation from an emotional and personal place is important.”
In the worst-case scenarios, the unfortunate task of expressing regret falls to loved ones. In a viral Twitter thread, London resident Jenny McCann outlined the circumstances of the coronavirus taking the life of her unvaccinated brother.
“My 42yr old twin brother died in ITU of COVID-19 last week. He died exactly 4 weeks after testing positive. He was the fittest, healthiest person I know,” she wrote. “The only pre existing health condition he had was the belief in his own immortality. … He didn’t want to put a vaccine on his body.”
“Before he was ventilated he told his consultant that he wished he had been vaccinated,” she added. “That he wished he had listened.”
Alabama resident Christy Carpenter found herself in a similar situation when she lost her unvaccinated 28-year-old son Curt two months after he was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
“It took watching my son die and me suffering the effects of covid for us to realize we need the vaccine,” she told The Washington Post. “We did not get vaccinated when we had the opportunity and regret that so much now.”
Now, she regularly posts on Facebook in an attempt to convince others in her life to get vaccinated – and it’s working.
“Everyone has been very supportive,” she said. “I’ve had quite a few family members who decided they were going to get the vaccine because they don’t want to go through that. Several of them have posted photos of themselves getting the vaccine. They use the hashtag #curtsmission.”
“It’s too late for Curt,” she added. “Our goal is to save other lives. I don’t want another mother to have sit there and watch her child die because they choose not to get vaccinated.”
These types of messages aren’t always well-received. Brytney Cobia, a physician at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Ala., wrote a viral Facebook post detailing her experience of watching young, unvaccinated people die in the hospital.
“I’m admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections. One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine,” she wrote. “I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”
“A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same,” Cobia added. “They cry. And they tell me they didn’t know. They thought it was a hoax.”
After the thread began circulating online and in several news stories, including one in The Post, Cobia and her mother began receiving a tumult of threatening and harassing messages. Days later, she changed her phone number.
While using social media to share these stories can be useful, Stacy Wood, a professor at North Carolina State University who has studied coronavirus vaccine promotion, said in-person conversations might even more effective.
“People who have had a scary covid experience and now are vaccine advocates could be encouraged to share their stories at local churches, school meetings, or other community gatherings,” Wood said.
“To hear stories directly from the converted is extraordinarily persuasive, but it must be as personally delivered as possible.”
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The Washington Post’s María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.