FARGO, N.D. (AP) — COVID-19 can't hurt me because I'm young and healthy. I'm so over it. Nobody tells me what to do.
Executives at a Bismarck marketing agency hired to help stem the tide of rising virus cases in central North Dakota say that's the mindset facing them with their campaign in the hot spot of a state that for weeks has been among the nation's leaders in the number of new virus cases per capita, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
Agency MABU was hired by a governor's task force in Burleigh and Morton counties that is nearly six weeks into its effort and frustrated by the lack of progress in an area that includes the cities of Bismarck and Mandan. The state will soon follow with a nearly $2 million campaign of its own that dwarfs MABU's $76,800 media budget.
In the meantime, MABU has created messages designed to leverage North Dakotans’ strong sense of freedom — the same thing that Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has said would make it difficult to impose a mask mandate even as last week he raised the risk levels of a dozen counties, including Burleigh and Morton.
Burgum decried the politicization of mask-wearing at a press briefing in May. He choked up as he said people may be wearing them because they might have a 5-year-old child going through cancer treatments or vulnerable adults in their lives stricken with COVID-19.
But Burgum has been unwilling to impose a requirement.
”In the end, it’s about individual decisions, not what the government does,” he has said on numerous occasions.
In Fargo, the state's largest and most liberal city and runaway leader in total number of COVID-19 cases, citizens flooded a City Council meeting this month to complain about a proposal to require masks. One resident said face coverings don't work and don't look human. Mayor Tim Mahoney said emails to his office have been 80% opposed to a mask mandate.
Anti-maskers made similar complaints at a Bismarck City Commission meeting,
Mike Mabin, MABU president and CEO, said the ad campaign plays on personal choice.
“It's about letting people know that everyone is free to respond as to how they choose to protect themselves and others," Mabin said. "It's more coming at it from their own personal motivation for self-preservation, but more importantly the altruism and being empathetic to others.”
Based on the highest number of cases, the agency is targeting age groups 20-29, described as invincible; 30-39, labeled as fatigued; and 50-59, pegged as resistant. Those people are most likely to contribute to community spread and pass on the virus to the most vulnerable populations, such as people in long-term care centers.
The first video ad features three people in each of those age groups who first express their skepticism about the virus before having a change of heart.
“I’m tired of this — but I want my kids in school every day," one woman says.
“I'm young and healthy — but not everyone else is,” a young man says.
“I don't have to — but I choose to protect myself and others,” an older man says.
By the end of the 30-second spot, each is wearing a mask and declaring that “COVID stops with me.”
Besides the website, the offering includes other forms of advertising, digital billboards, a tool kit for businesses and others with posters and photos that can be customized. There also is a social media calendar, and communication and strategy support for groups such as the Burleigh-Morton task force.
Kalen Ost, emergency preparedness information specialist for Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, said he's hopeful the quickly assembled campaign will change minds and reinforce people's positive actions about wearing masks, social distancing and good personal hygiene.
“I kind of feel if we scream, people won't listen,” Ost said. “I'm fully aware that by default there are people who will dig in their heels and will not do it. It's just not going to happen and nothing you can say or do will ever change their minds. That's just reality.
“But I also believe there are people out there who want to have some way that they can help. I think this campaign can illustrate some ways they can help and why they can,” he added.
The task appears daunting. Burleigh County is the state's leader in active cases, and along with Morton County has accounted for nearly one-third of the state's deaths from the virus.
North Dakota Department of Health spokeswoman Nicole Peske said it's no secret that COVID-19 numbers are headed in the wrong direction. She said the larger state campaign, Mask Up North Dakota, will include “messaging that is meaningful” for older adults and people who live in close-quarters like dorms or multi-generational housing.
“North Dakotans are experiencing COVID fatigue and our campaign efforts aim to get at the WHY behind the necessary recommendations to social distance, wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, etc.,” Peske said in a statement.