Using TikTok as a COVID-19 Teaching Tool

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What do TikTok, energetic choreography and songs by Cardi B and Ariana Grande have in common? Dr. Kara Wong Ramsey is using them to raise awareness about COVID-19 and what can be done to provide protection from the contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes it.

“People have posted a lot of humorous, entertaining videos on TikTok, but I realized social media platforms like it have become valuable educational tools,” said Wong Ramsey, a neonatologist at Kapiʻolani Medical Center for Women & Children. “We’ve gone from just writing words to creating memes to doing personalized videos.”

Technology has made it easy for just about everyone to shoot, edit and add audio and special effects to their videos; Wong Ramsey learned by trial and error and watching YouTube tutorials. She enjoys acting and dancing, so she felt comfortable being on camera to produce her COVID-19 content on TikTok. Although her presentations are short – most are just 15 seconds – they capture viewers’ attention with lively music and movements, interesting transitions and fun accessories such as cat ears and scrub caps with Disney characters.

Wong Ramsey’s videos are simple; her goal is to offer just a few key sound bites that hopefully will motivate viewers to seek out more information. Among her messages:

  • The COVID-19 vaccines provide more antibody production than natural infection and may help boost immunity in people previously infected
  • Efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines increases from 50 to 95 percent after the second dose
  • Maximum protection from those vaccines is attained two weeks after the second dose
  • Most common reactions have been fever, headache, sore arm and muscle aches for a few days
  • There has been an average of only five cases of severe allergic reactions per 1 million doses of those vaccines
  • Vaccine studies for children as young as 12 years are underway (last month, Moderna announced it has begun testing children as young as 6 months old)

“Elevator speech is a term I learned in a leadership class,” Wong Ramsey said. “Pretend you’re in an elevator with a CEO and you want to pitch an idea to him or her. You have only about 30 seconds to do that before the door opens and the CEO walks away. The purpose of an elevator speech is to make a lasting impression in that really short time – to explain why you think your idea is important and why the person you’re talking with should think it’s important too. In essence, my videos are elevator speeches with visuals.”

She posted her first COVID-19-related video on TikTok in August 2020. Since then, she has produced nine more (go to www.tiktok.com/@noelani82), and she plans to continue doing it, in part to allay fears about the vaccines.

“Data has shown the vaccines that are available have remarkable efficacy, but I know many people are concerned about how quickly they were developed,” Wong Ramsey said. “They’re saying, ʻThe vaccines have been out for less than a year; are they really safe? How do I know they’re okay for me? I’m not quite sure I want to take it. I want to wait and see.’”

Photo: Dr. Kara Wong Ramsey at the Kapiʻolani Medical Center
Dr. Kara Wong Ramsey on the job at the Kapiʻolani Medical Center. – Photo: Courtesy

To build public confidence in the vaccines, she believes health-care workers need to step forward and say they’ve studied the data and think it’s sound. They also should emphasize they were comfortable getting the vaccine and have encouraged their loved ones to do it, too.

Wong Ramsey points out the power of moʻolelo. “Advice our doctors give us and reports on the research have merit, but what we in the Native Hawaiian community really want to know is if someone close to us has been vaccinated, and, if so, how did he or she feel afterward,” she said. “It’s important for all of us to share our knowledge and experiences with our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Learning about the virus, COVID-19 and the vaccines is an ongoing process, and we are all writing that story.”


Vaccine confidence a factor in global health

The World Health Organization lists the lack of vaccine confidence as one of the top 10 threats to global health, even though vaccinations, in general, prevent millions of deaths each year.

The University of Hawai‘i’s College of Social Sciences recently released a report based on four surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau from January 6 through March 1 to study attitudes about COVID-19 vaccinations in Hawai‘i. Between 700 and 900 adults aged 18 and older participated in each survey.

Fifty-five percent of the respondents indicated they would “definitely” or “probably” get vaccinated, and 12 percent said they will “definitely not” or “probably not” do it. Of the remaining 33 percent, 31 percent already have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 2 percent did not answer the question.

Lack of confidence was attributed to several factors, including concerns about the vaccines’ safety, effectiveness and side effects, and people believing that others need the vaccine more than they do. Those who said they “will definitely not” get the vaccine also expressed a lack of trust in the vaccines and the government. To change these perceptions, the report underscored the need for pro-vaccination messaging to come from trusted sources, including community leaders and medical professionals.