“It can happen to anybody,” said Pope, 47, even her – an energetic single mother of a teenager, Hamilton County employee and bartender for hire. That’s the message Pope delivers as part of a public-service campaign urging African Americans to wear masks in public to stop the viral infection.
The campaign extends the Masks On push in the Cincinnati area that started in early July. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the Health Collaborative assembled an effort called the Regional COVID Communications Center to escalate and spread public health messages during the pandemic.
The first weeks of the Masks On campaign, designed by Procter & Gamble Co., were successful enough that Gov. Mike DeWine credited the billboards and PSA with bending Hamilton County’s infection rate in mid-July.
Regina Carswell Russo, the center’s executive director, said the suggestion for the new ads came from Damon Jones, P&G’s chief communications officer. Jones and Russo talked about the Cincinnati region’s increase of coronavirus infections, especially among younger Black people who were otherwise healthy.
“This was hitting us hard, and we felt that we had to speak to them,” Russo said. “We had the understanding that the best way was from the heart center, with real voices.” The ads began July 23-25, what would have been the weekend of the annual Cincinnati Music Festival, and will run on social media through the end of August, she said.
Russo recruited two people who endured the infection and the resulting illness COVID-19. Kenyatta Smith is a second-generation Cincinnati firefighter, who in one ad says through a mask, “Trust me: You do not want this.”
Pope had been chronicling her experience with the illness on social media. Pope said when Russo contacted her about the campaign she jumped at the chance. “If we can reach people out there, to get them to understand how serious this is from a person who’s actually experienced it, I said, let’s do it.”
Pope is an eligibility technician with Hamilton County Job & Family Services helping residents navigate government assistance programs. As the coronavirus spread in the United States in the spring, Pope was a skeptic. “I was like, OK, is this really real? You keep hearing different stories, oh, they say coronavirus is not real. I was sitting having mixed feelings about it.”
Then numbers of illnesses and deaths rose in Ohio and the nation. By Father’s Day in June, Pope was sick, first with a days-long headache that resisted treatment. At the end of that week, Pope’s boyfriend Nate Allen took her to a testing station in Bond Hill, where her temperature reading hit 104 degrees. Her test was positive.
Her breathing was labored. Pain wracked her body. She sent her son Jayden to live with his father. “She was going through a lot, and I felt really bad,” said Jayden. “That’s my mom. It hurts to see someone suffering so much.”
Over the next month, Pope said she made at least four trips to Jewish Hospital. Each time, the doctors treated her pain and discharged her. Despite her labored respiration, her blood oxygen level never fell below normal. She remembered a doctor saying there was nothing more they could do for her, and she had to fight the infection on her own.
“I was so scared, even though I knew that it was nothing but the devil. I grew up in church, and there are certain times you gotta say: ‘Devil, go! Go!’ ”
Her boyfriend nursed her, then he got sick. Her parents, Robert and Mary Pope of Silverton, called her daily but could not be with her. “It was probably hard for them, seeing their daughter in the state I was in.”
Her bartending gigs dried up, although she saved two by hiring a girlfriend. Friends and neighbors dropped off orange juice, containers of soup, hand sanitizer. Calls to her son ended in tears with Jayden comforting her, you’ll be all right, you’ll get through it.
On July 21, she took another coronavirus test and came up negative. Last week, she said she is feeling better, although it’s still hard to breathe, and she coughs a lot. She planned to start back to work Aug. 3. Best of all, Jayden has come back home, a place where sickness “made us more cautious,” he said. “We just come in, and now we wipe everything down and spray everything with Lysol.”
His mother “became twice as cautious,” Jayden said, “but she’s still the same ol’, good ol’ mother.”