Hunter Grier was ready to rock.
But first, he had a message for the more than 10,000 people — mostly young — watching online.
“I don’t think you need to hear it from me, but I wouldn’t be here saying it if I didn’t think it was super important,” the 20-year-old musician who performs as honeypot told his virtual audience. “There’s no excuse at this point. Just wear a … mask and be cool and that’s all it takes.”
Then he launched into a propulsive song called “mirror,” standing alone in his Snohomish County home with a guitar and mic — and singing through a mask.
Honeypot was the opening act Nov. 28 for the first “Safe in Sound” streaming concert produced by the incongruous combination of The Vera Project — a nonprofit for youth that specializes in punk and hip-hop performances — and Public Health – Seattle & King County.
With coronavirus infections growing exponentially across Washington and people under the age of 40 accounting for nearly 60% of new cases, health officials are trying new tactics to reach the crucial youth demographic. They’re abandoning the formality of traditional public health messages and enlisting young people as advisers and emissaries to others of their own age.
“Us pairing with Public Health is weird and a little bit eye-catching right off the bat,” said Ricky Graboski, the 30-year-old executive director of The Vera Project. “What we’re trying to do with this series is book a bunch of really great musical acts young people love — this nightlife world they can’t be a part of now — and bring that back with streamed concerts.”
Artists are free to discuss how they’re coping with the pandemic and share tips and advice. Interspersed between the acts are conversations about how to stay safe and sane in a pandemic — all guided by young people.
“There’s a lot of outreach being done to youth, but there hasn’t been a lot of outreach by youth for youth,” said Anya Shukla, a 17-year-old arts activist who moderated a panel discussion with health officials and musicians during the Nov. 28 concert.
The need to communicate more effectively with young people is reflected in the statistics.
Infection rates in people aged 10 to 29 more than tripled in King County between early October and early November. For the week of Nov. 17, the rate of new infections in adults under 30 was 441 per 100,000 — nearly twice as high as any other age group.
“When you look at the data on how young people are being impacted by COVID, you can clearly see that something’s not working and we need to figure out different ways to reach them,” said Hikma Sherka, 23, a youth leader in Seattle’s Ethiopian community and a member of King County’s Children and Youth Advisory Board.
Young people are less likely to get seriously ill or be hospitalized with COVID-19, but they play an important role in the ongoing spread of the disease, said Judith Malmgren, a Seattle epidemiologist affiliated with the University of Washington.
“When you have a reservoir of disease in a certain population, it’s not going to stay there,” said Malmgren, who first analyzed the shift from older to younger age groups in spring. She recently reexamined the numbers to report that the trend has continued. “If you don’t acknowledge that as a problem you’re not going to get anywhere,” she said.
Young people have greater exposure to the virus because many work in service jobs, like restaurants, bars and retail shops, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for King County. They also have wider social circles and are more likely to use public transit and share housing. And since many young people have mild or no symptoms, their odds of unwittingly spreading the disease to others is higher.
Some young people do get very sick and can develop so-called “long COVID,” with symptoms that linger for months, Duchin said. Rising levels of infection in young people are also generally followed by increased infections in older, more vulnerable groups.
“The reason it’s important to recognize the high rates of disease in young people is because we need young people to understand that what they do affects the health of everyone in the community, including those people who are at high risk of getting seriously ill and dying,” Duchin said.
But laying blame and wagging fingers isn’t the best way to inspire anyone — young or old — to take precautions, say health officials and youth advocates.
“It’s a lot harder to accept information if you’re being scapegoated or if someone is pointing a finger at you,” said Shukla. “And all youth are not a monolith. Not everyone is being reckless.”
The two-person team at Public Health – Seattle & King County coordinating the youth-driven COVID prevention campaign are seeking to change the tone, acknowledging how difficult it can be for young people to cut themselves off from their social networks and offering support and safer alternatives.
“We’ve thrown a lot of our historic social media strategy out the door and had to move into uncharted territory,” said Lily Alexander, 28.
She and Hannah Johnson, 30, partnered with other groups to recruit high school-aged “social media ambassadors” who share information with their peers. They created a character called “Miss Rona” to answer questions from young people via Instagram and used mock text exchanges to discuss the challenges of dating during a pandemic.
One of their colleagues creates COVID-themed comics that explore dilemmas like the aching desire to visit family over the holidays — and the pain of having to postpone gatherings this year. The team also enlisted Sherka to interview Duchin on Instagram, fielding questions from young people.
Measuring the impact is difficult, but Public Health – Seattle & King County has gained 6,000 Instagram followers over the course of the pandemic. Team members also received many messages thanking them for speaking to young people on their own terms, Alexander said.
The four livestream concerts with The Vera Project represented another leap for the health agency, Johnson said.
Each concert has a different theme, ranging from how to make art during a pandemic to ways to maintain emotional and mental health, Johnson said. “For young people, their peer groups are their most important source of connection … Having strategies to maintain your relationships while being COVID-safe is really an important part of the approach.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that young people are not responsible for the federal government’s lack of a coherent strategy — and the consequences of that failure — said The Vera Project’s Graboski.
“A huge percentage of young people care. They want to do what’s right for their community and fight this virus,” he said. But there’s also a feeling of hopelessness when even a simple measure like wearing a mask becomes politicized, he added.
In her own Columbia City neighborhood, Sherka has seen many situations where the coronavirus has spread through families, often introduced by parents, not young people.
A recent King County analysis found that more than a third of new cases were likely picked up within households, with 21% related to workplace exposure and 18% due to exposure during community activities or social gatherings.
Sherka says some of the young people she knows have become complacent, meeting up with others without masks, attending weddings, and downplaying the seriousness of the disease if they become infected and their symptoms are mild. Her own 14-year-old sister is climbing the walls because she’s so sick of being home all the time.
“We need to find safe spaces for young people to do the basic things that really keep us sane, while also keeping safe from catching COVID and passing it on to someone else,” Sherka said.
She recently helped host an online “Sip and Paint” Zoom session with a couple of dozen young people from her community. With art supplies delivered to their homes, they created drawings and paintings while discussing the frustrations of pandemic living.
“The majority of the conversation was about COVID.”
Shukla, who lives in Bellevue, and her friends take socially distanced walks together and spend a lot more time talking on the phone than they ever did before — as a welcome break from being online all day for school.
But she also understands the feeling of invincibility many young people share. “You think: This won’t affect me, because I’m younger and I’m healthy and I’m taking precautions,” she said. “That mindset can sometimes lead young people to put themselves in less-safe situations.”
Correction: This story previously included an incorrect spelling of Anya Shukla’s name.