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Student leads vaccine conversation with surgeon general

Nine months after her first Instagram post attempting to share factual information about COVID-19 vaccines, Jordan Tralins ’23 will lead a national network of college students in a livestreamed conversation with “the nation’s doctor” about the state of vaccines and vaccine hesitancy.

From 5:30-6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4, members of the public – particularly college students and other young people – are invited to join the COVID Campus Coalition’s virtual discussion with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Click here to register.

From a Cornell broadcast studio, Tralins, a human biology, health and society major in the College of Human Ecology (CHE) and founder of the coalition, will moderate a panel of student ambassadors representing some of the more than 40 colleges and universities supporting the initiative. Seeking to combat misconceptions and provide accurate, timely information about vaccines, the social media campaign’s tag line is “Get the facts. Get the vax.”

That message aligns with a July Surgeon General’s Advisory warning that health misinformation posed an “urgent threat” that could prolong the pandemic.

“From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread on their platforms, to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation,” Murthy said, “tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation.”

The coalition anticipates an informal dialogue in which the surgeon general both answers questions – potentially touching on the latest guidance concerning booster shots and breakthrough infections – and listens to students, including some on campuses where vaccine hesitancy remains high, said Tralins, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida. The coalition has polled its Instagram and TikTok followers to solicit questions, which viewers may also submit.

“It’s going to be an approachable conversation,” Tralins said, “being real with the surgeon general and telling him about our experiences, and getting his candid answers.”

At Cornell, which mandated vaccines for students returning this fall and where 96% of the campus population was fully vaccinated as of Sept. 16, according to a university dashboard, Tralins said it may be easy to think such conversations are no longer needed.

But nationally, barely more than half of Americans aged 18-24 were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 27, while 63.5% had received one dose of a multidose vaccine, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve made progress since the summer, but the statistics really show that the job is not over and we have a lot of work to do, especially in terms of messaging appropriately,” Tralins said. “We need to use creativity to help get the word out and help young people understand the importance of getting vaccinated.”

Tralins put that creativity into action early this year, posting graphics designed by fellow human biology, health and society major Olivia Pawlowski ’22 (CHE) that shared facts and debunked myths, providing links to scientific journals and authoritative sources such as the CDC. Coalition members can customize the graphics with their school’s colors.

Tapping her background in the performing arts, Tralins also converted some of those messages into TikTok posts dubbing accurate vaccine information over song lyrics. One popular post presented vaccine ingredients in the style of a cooking tutorial.

The coalition’s efforts have earned coverage in major media outlets including CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, which Tralins said prompted a member of the White House COVID-19 Recovery Response Team to reach out about an event involving the surgeon general.

Other organizations that have reached out about potential partnerships or to seek the coalition’s advice on how to engage with young people, Tralins said, include the American Lung Association and Teen Choice Awards.

Today, Tralins said, more than fear of vaccines or mistrust of science, young people may simply perceive themselves as less vulnerable, and not see a need to get vaccinated or understand the broader community implications of that choice.

“This is a community public health measure and it’s meant to protect us and help us get back to normal,” she said. “If we want to really exit this pandemic, if we want to not have to wear masks and stuff like that, it’s really a matter of everyone getting vaccinated so we can wipe it out for good.”

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Abby Butler