St. Louis Park teens using social media to encourage schoolmates to get their COVID-19 shots

You could call Gabe Kaplan and his friends the "Teen Vaccine Squad."

"We’ve reached out to …. probably a couple of thousand," Kaplan, a St. Louis Park High School graduating senior, said. "We have 40 volunteers each posting."

Their goal: to persuade other high school students to get their COVID shots.

"We try to approach them as we would a friend, so in a loving way," says Semona Robel, a junior at the school. "A lot of people are actually swayed to sort of start looking into getting the vaccine when you’re doing it in a friendly way, rather than sort of debating them."

The group is using a technique used in political campaigns called "friend banking," where they text and use social media to network with other young people.

"Basically, people text their friends and their family and people that follow them on social media and help them connect to appointments," Kaplan said. "The main goal is to connect to people you actually know, or friends, especially. If someone’s hesitant to get the vaccine, they are worried about the side effects or anything like that, they’re going to be more open to a friend or a family member than a stranger."

"It’s a big deal when you get everyone involved," adds Tamar Gewirtz, also a graduating senior. "If you get 50 volunteers and everyone gets vaccinated, that’s 500 people."

Kaplan notes that upperclassmen have been able to get vaccinated for several months now.

But with Moderna announcing its vaccine is safe and effective for kids ages 12 to 18, he’s hoping to get appointments for freshmen and sophomores.

"If you hear from a friend or if you hear from a classmate, you’re going to be much more receptive to the message," Kaplan said. "And knowing so many people have been vaccinated I’m sure has helped to reassure people that it’s safe and something important to do."

Occasionally, members of the group have connected with those reluctant to get the vaccine.

"I have several friends that live in other states with families that don’t want them to get vaccinated," Gewirtz said. "Kids growing up with that don’t think they should get vaccinated."

But for the most part, Kaplan says most of the group’s contacts in the metro are willing to listen. He says they already have a network of go-to pharmacies where they can help set up an appointment.

"If it’s someone we know pretty closely and the volunteer trusts they’re going to follow through, we just give them the link," Gabe explains. "But if we’re in a class with someone and we don’t necessarily know if they really want it, we’ll actually go through the form with them and then actually make sure they follow through."

He says there’s no way of knowing how many teens have actually gotten their vaccinations. But occasionally, he and his friends will get pictures of students celebrating their first or second shot with them.

"I’m thrilled," said Gabe’s mother, Laura. "I mean, who better to get teenagers to do something than other teenagers?"

She says the idea likely came from when she was looking for a vaccine appointment online several months ago and came up empty.

"So he took it over," she said. "He was doing virtual school on one laptop and he was monitoring the sites … he got it in just a half hour. He was able to get a perfect appointment."

Kaplan and his crew even have a bingo game for volunteers, where they can win points for reaching out to different people.

"Your ex is 50, your crush is five," Kaplan. "The goal is to have different kinds of people to reach out to."

The winner gets a $50 gift card.

The group is making a big push now, reminding students that finals are mostly over and that summertime is just around the corner. They plan to continue the social media blitz through the summer.

"It just feels really cool to be involved in this," Robel said. "It feels really good to know that I’m helping my community, helping people get vaccinated."