To Promote Vaccines, New Orleans Dances With Its Heart on Its Sleeve

In an undated image provided by City of New Orleans, courtesy of Crista Rock, Norman Dixon of the Young Men Olympians Benevolent Association promotes vaccination in the “Sleeves Up, NOLA” campaign. — City of New Orleans, courtesy of Crista Rock via The New York Times

The snap of the snare drums is insistent. New Orleanians take joyous turns high-stepping and chicken strutting, dressed in the hand-sewn feathered finery of their social clubs and krewes. The celebration, shown on a new 30-second public service announcement airing in the city, is both resplendent and aching, an evocation of Carnival masking season that should have begun this month, culminating on Feb. 16 with Mardi Gras. All of it canceled, of course, by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet the spot is hopeful: To regain this and more, it exhorts, get vaccinated.

The advertisement is one of numerous efforts around the country to persuade people of the importance of getting a COVID shot. But its homegrown approach, using neighborhood personas and invoking local culture with “laissez les bons temps rouler” dance moves and costumes, may make it particularly effective, say experts in vaccine hesitance and behavioral change.

“I’m getting the vaccine so we can have Mardi Gras, y’all!” shouts Jeremy Stevenson, a Monogram Hunter Mardi Gras Indian, also known as Second Chief Lil Pie, as he sways wildly in a 150-pound, 12-foot-tall tower of turquoise feathers and beading, beneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass, a well-known festival meetup.

Other locals prance forth to offer their own reasons, concluding with the tagline: “Sleeves Up, NOLA!”

“I teared up several times and also just laughed out loud with delight. The sense of community is contagious,” said Alison M. Buttenheim, a vaccine behavioral expert at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing who is most decidedly not a New Orleanian.

“Vaccination is framed as a collective action that everyone can contribute to in order to bring back things the community values and cherishes,” added Buttenheim, the scientific director of the university’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.

Although national vaccine hesitation rates are falling, surveys show that antipathy to the new shots is still widespread among some demographic groups, jeopardizing the goal of broad immunity. There has been little consensus, much less activity, around ways to build confidence in the shot.

Since the summer, public health officials and politicians repeatedly called for national pro-vaccination campaigns. But no meaningful federal campaign has materialized, so concerned local officials have begun to develop their own publicity.

New Orleans may be best positioned to be at the forefront. Regularly battered by hurricanes, the city has an emergency management office practiced in public messaging.

Earlier in the pandemic, it devised a “Masks Up, NOLA!” slogan. As the virus raced through neighborhoods, Laura A. Mellem, the city’s public engagement manager for its NOLA Ready program, was acutely aware that it was hitting Black New Orleanians in starkly disproportionate numbers. Black people comprise some 60% of the city’s population but nearly 74% of its COVID-19 deaths.

“But the communities that are the most impacted by the virus are likely the most hesitant about the vaccine, because of the long-standing history of abuse against them in the name of science,” Mellem said.

How to persuade them to get the shot?

In November, the city put together the Vaccine Equity and Communications Working Group, a coalition of high-profile public health doctors, faith leaders, leaders from Black, Latino and Vietnamese communities, and heads of the city’s large social clubs. The group filled out surveys, identifying cultural icons that would appeal widely to residents.

Rather than focusing messaging on the miseries wrought by the pandemic, Mellem said, they decided to emphasize an aspirational and inviting tone, a core insight derived from behavioral change research and urban thought leaders in cities like San Francisco. As Edward Maibach, a professor at George Mason University who studies public health messaging, writes, the most effective communications “make the behaviors we are promoting easy, fun and popular.”

“I’m getting my shot so I can visit my 92-year-old mom and we can eat in our favorite restaurants,” says Julie Nalibov of the Krewe of Red Beans, which helps the city’s stricken cultural performing artists, many of whom are over 70.

The “social aid and pleasure clubs,” which parade with brass-bands on Sundays and offer fellowship and volunteer service usually to Black communities, are represented by the all-female N’awlins Dawlins Baby Dolls, in satiny yellow dresses and parasols: “I’m getting the shot to protect my family!” says Trinette Pichon of the Dawlins, sashaying with a toddler on her hip.

In beribboned suits, three members of the Young Men Olympians Benevolent Association, one of the oldest and most prominent clubs, display second-line stepping — a New Orleans tradition, in which brass bands are followed by dancing club members and fans, exuberant even during funerals.

I’m getting the vaccine, “to continue my culture,” says one. “So that I can dance another day,” says the second. “So I don’t have to lose another brother,” says the third.

The spot took scarcely an hour to shoot and about eight hours to edit. Because the videographer, Crista Rock, gave the city considerably reduced rates, the ad cost about $1,000 and will be shown on local TV stations and saturate social media. Still photos will adorn citywide billboards.

“I hope state and local health departments around the country can get resources to develop more hyperlocal campaigns. Imagine similar spots from Philly, or Boise, or Hawaii, or the Cherokee Nation,” said Buttenheim.

For Stevenson, Chief Lil Pie, the promo represents traditions he has known intimately since he was 11, when he began working with his father, Big Chief Pie, on their annual hand-sewn costumes.

Because of the pandemic this year, the Monogram Hunters’ Sunday night Mardi Gras rehearsals, which typically start the weekend after Thanksgiving and draw swelling, call-and-response crowds to the neighborhood tavern, the First and Last Stop Bar, were canceled. On Mardi Gras itself, the tribe, whose members paint their cheeks black and red to honor the local Indians who sheltered runaway New Orleans slaves, will not be stepping out from the First and Last Stop to show off their regalia.

But Stevenson, determined to sustain the old ways, has been hand-sewing yet another spectacular costume this year: This one features a black Pegasus. He will mount it in a glass case, probably right outside the bar, for people to take selfies with. For homebound fans, he will wheel it through the streets to their doorsteps, so they can have a look.

He misses the heady, throbbing chanting, the drums thudding, tambourines crashing, when the tribes come together on Claiborne Avenue for the traditional Mardi Gras call-and-response throwdown.

“If we don’t get a vaccine,” he said, “how can me and my tribe and the 150 people who follow us meet and gather?”

The New York Times

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