Young people getting vaccinated could play crucial role in saving us from COVID-19

OPINION: Now that the vaccine is here, our youth have an incredible opportunity to preserve our future and prevent more suffering at the hands of this disease

Our future is quite literally in the hands of young people.

Society is counting on 18 to 29 year olds, the lowest vaccinated group in the United States, to do their part in defeating the pandemic and building society-wide immunity to COVID-19, but vaccination rates have plateaued. Since March 2021, polls have consistently shown that Generation Z (ages 18-23) and millennials (ages 24-34) are the least likely to get vaccinated.

As of July 26, the Mayo Clinic reports that 43% of those 18 to 24 years old and 48% of those 25 to 39 years old have received the vaccine, well below the 70% minimum vaccination rate needed to halt the pandemic.  

Why Young People Aren’t Getting Vaccinated

The reasons are many, ranging from apathy and hesitancy to refusal and access issues. Creating an airtight plan to increase vaccination rates requires a keen understanding of why young people aren’t getting the shot in the first place.

But before we start this conversation keep in mind that many teens and adolescents are currently ineligible for the vaccine although public health circles fully expect vaccine approval for those age 6 and up by the fall. The Pfizer vaccine gained FDA approval for use in those age 12 and over on May 10. Also, with the exception of a few minors who can consent for medical procedures without adult permission, vaccine-eligible 16 and 17 year olds need a parent to consent to the vaccine. That means parental buy-in, or the lack thereof, serves as a potential barrier to vaccination efforts.  

And there’s no dearth of misleading information on the internet. Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok, the most widely used social media platforms, have become the most popular conduits of mis(information); and these campaigns target young people, the largest user base.

A direct correlation exists between misinformation and the direction we’re heading in. Misinformation campaigns have fueled anti-vaccine sentiments and energized conspiracy theorists. A fair amount of media coverage has addressed how these misinformation campaigns reinforce skepticism in millennials, but less attention has been put on the numerous factless anti-vaccine memes that poison younger minds. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have faced pressure to increase their anti-vaccine censorship.

Vaccine-apathy or the perception that COVID-19 is not a threat to young people is another major obstacle to getting shots in arms. 

While young people, especially children, tend to have milder or asymptomatic cases, the virus has proven to be unpredictable even in presumably young, healthy people. More than 300 children in the U.S. under the age of 18 have died since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and over 16,000 have been hospitalized during this time; and nearly one-quarter of those hospitalized have developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a condition marked by the inflammation of different body parts like the heart, lungs and kidneys, according to the CDC.

Race, income level, and political affiliation are also dividing lines. Studies show that Republicans have been less likely than Democrats to get the vaccine; low-income earners are less likely than high-income earners to get the vaccine; and Black and Latinx vaccination rates lag in almost every state behind white and Asian populations. Finding a clear explanation why has been elusive, but this is a reminder of the powerful influence of community affiliation on health decision-making.

Young People as Vectors of Disease

Teen gets COVID-19 vaccine,
A group of teenagers serving as ‘Covid-19 Student Ambassadors’ joined Governor Gretchen Whitmer to receive a dose of the Pfizer Covid vaccine at Ford Field during an event to promote and encourage Michigan residents to go and get their vaccines on April 6, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Young people may unknowingly spread the disease to more vulnerable populations like parents and grandparents. Vaccination is one way to stop this from happening. Vaccines unlock your immune system, inhibiting the virus from replicating. Less copies of the virus mean that not only are you less likely to develop symptoms if you encounter COVID-19, but the virus is less likely to mutate. 

If viruses mutate they can develop the ability to escape conventional medical treatments or decrease a vaccine’s potential to limit the spread of disease. 

The rise of the COVID-19 delta variant is threatening national public health progress and economic recovery, while also putting vaccinated people at risk. On Wednesday, the CDC quietly updated its testing recommendations, advising even fully vaccinated people to be tested if they come into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, whether symptoms appear or not. Prior recommendations advised against testing for vaccinated people who came into contact with the virus, but public health officials have changed their minds amid rising COVID-19 cases in vaccinated populations.

What We Need To Do

We’re at the point in the pandemic where we have to aggressively move the pro-vaccine push forward. This requires mandating the vaccine in schools and at work and providing incentives, such as the new $100 incentive put forth by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Trusted leaders in the community and influencers must promote unity around health-positive behaviors like immunization. You may resent being told what to do or feel as if taking such drastic measures is a violation of your rights, but there is no discussion about our rights without our life.

Vaccines are maximally effective when everyone participates. It’s the reason why polio and smallpox have become eradicated in most parts of the world. A united vaccine front, rooted in the desire to protect the health of your neighbor as much as yourself, is the cure.

In order for herd immunity to occur a large portion of the population has to become immune to the disease. There’s an easy way and a hard way. The hard way: 70% of the population recovers from the virus and develops immune-protecting antibodies. The easy way: the same number, about 200 million people, get vaccinated. 

The difference between the two approaches is that you risk having severe complications including death in the first scenario. 

Over 600,000 people have died since the start of the pandemic. The nation clamored for a vaccine. It’s here now, and our youth have an incredible opportunity to preserve our future and prevent more suffering at the hands of this disease. It’s time for our youth to be the change they want to be. Make an appointment. Get the vaccine.

Dr. Shamard Charles is an assistant professor of public health and health promotion at St. Francis College and sits on the anti-bias review board of Dot Dash/VeryWell Health. He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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