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Can personal videos made by hospital workers help against COVID-19?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have had many questions about health matters. Naturally, doctors and nurses who are in the front line against the virus have been amongst the most listened to. Some of these front line staff have posted videos on social media with preventive advice or explanations about the illness, the virus and vaccination. To a large extent, the impact of these videos on people’s knowledge about the virus and on behaviour remains unknown.

American researchers (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge) have carried out a randomised trial (NCT04644328 & AEARCTR-0006821) to better understand the effects of the massive diffusion of short videos via Facebook (used by 70% of adult Americans) on behaviour at a local level.

In November 2020, infections were rising and the CDC (Center for Disease Prevention) recommended that people should not travel during end-of-year celebrations, in order to limit intermingling and, as a result, limit the incidence of cases. Prior to the festive period, 11 doctors and nurses posted 20 videos (recorded on smartphones) diffused as “sponsored content” (ads), recommending that people stay at home during the holidays. These videos were received by more than 11 million users over 13 states and 820 counties before Thanksgiving, and by more than 23 million users before Christmas.

In the most populated counties (with the most ZIP codes), Facebook users (according to geopositioning) significantly reduced their travel distances during the 3 days preceding the holidays. However, they did not literally remain at home during this period (72% were absent from home on the first day of the holidays). We can assume that they celebrated locally, which should have had an epidemiological impact as compared to normal travel involving greater distances. The researchers evaluated the overall reduction of new cases of COVID-19 as being 3,5% in these regions between 5 and 19 days following this awareness campaign.

Individuals seem therefore to be generally receptive to messages from hospital personnel. This is the first study to show that this type of campaign, in conjunction with a reduction in travel, can contribute to saving lives. The authors suggest using similar approaches to encourage vaccination and ask whether longer campaigns, using other social media as well, with videos made by celebrities or other types of message (longer, and not in the form of adverts) may be still more effective.

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