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Tom Hanks gave the world Toy Story, Forrest Gump, Castaway, and other classics. For that alone he’s a legend, but he may have also helped change the trajectory of the country’s deadly plague.

Penn State reported this week that Hanks’ battle with COVID-19 might have changed the average person’s perception and attitude toward the virus. A day after Hanks announced his diagnosis on March 11, 2020, an associate professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State, Jessica Gall Myrick, and an associate professor at Washington State University, Jessica Fitts Willoughby, surveyed 682 people about their attitude and behavior towards COVID-19. 

Almost 90% of the people heard about the actor’s social media reveal and nearly half of the people said it impacted their attitudes and behaviors. This led Myrick to believe that Hanks’ celebrity and social media presence changed the trajectory of the coronavirus.

“There is a growing body of research about how celebrity behavior and social media posts can affect public health,” she explained. “This research was different in that we were able to launch our study really fast and collect survey data within a day of Hanks posting about his diagnosis.”

People reportedly felt that Hanks’ diagnosis “highlighted the reality of COVID-19” forcing them to broaden their understanding of the virus. The study also gauged the impacted’s emotions about COVID, resulting in answers ranging from surprise, fear, anger, sadness, and hope. Of the half that wasn’t impacted by Hanks’ reveal, the majority were already aware of COVID-19 and its severity. They also knew that quarantine social distancing could reduce Hanks’ chance of having a severe reaction to the virus. 

Hanks’ impact on the perception of COVID-19 is a lesson for celebrities to use their platform and influence wisely. 

“Celebrities can have a huge reach, often more so than typical scientists or doctors or the health department,” Myrick said. “If they are encouraging positive health behavior change, then it can serve as a de facto public health intervention.”