Maria Varela will turn 21 on July 13. After months inside, she is looking for a reason to celebrate.
“The plan was always to go to my friend’s house, get a group of friends together and just be young adults,” the rising college senior said. She’s been home in Fort Worth, attending New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University virtually because of the pandemic.
But the people living in the shared house she was planning to go to aren’t vaccinated, and Varela is.
“So now I can’t do that. All of my friends from school live out of state, so I can’t see any of them. I’ve been feeling pretty isolated for a while,” she said.
Her plan is to settle for a pandemic-style Zoom party the weekend after her milestone birthday.
Lower vaccination rates among young adults in the United States are resulting in anxiety and painful decision-making for those who are vaccinated but have friends, family, loved ones and colleagues who aren’t.
As of June 30, 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had been vaccinated, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Of those remaining, 11 percent said they will definitely get vaccinated, and 9 percent said they will probably get vaccinated. However, 18 percent said they will definitely not get vaccinated, while 14 percent said they will probably not get vaccinated, the Post-ABC poll found.
There are several reasons this particular cohort seems to be less inclined to get vaccines, experts say. Part of the problem stems from public health messaging surrounding the coronavirus coupled with the perceived natural invincibility of that age group, said Jodie Guest, a professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s public health school.
Early messaging “very much focused on our older population being at risk for very severe outcomes from covid-19,” Guest said. “The unintended consequence of that message helped people feel like if you’re not in that age group, you’re not at risk. And we’ve never caught up with that unintended consequence.”
“Couple that with 18- to 24-year-olds who already have a very decent dose of immortality in the way they approach life, and you put those two things together, and you’ve got kind of a good recipe for, ‘This is really not going to affect me. Even if it does, it’s not going to have long-term side effects. It’s really just not going to be a very big deal,’” she said.
Guest also criticized disparate political policies and murky rules governing life for the vaccinated.
“The really important messaging for that age group would be when you’re vaccinated, you can resume normal social activities. But as states have loosened restrictions, you kind of got that without needing to be vaccinated,” she said.
Varela said she would have gotten vaccinated regardless, but at home in Texas, she is living with her sister who has two small children. She wants to remain vigilant about her own coronavirus protocols to keep them safe. She said her unvaccinated friends have expressed different reasons for not getting the jab, including not having time off work and not trusting pharmaceutical companies.
For Jordan Tralins, a rising junior at Cornell University and founder of the Covid Campus Coalition, a group that is using Instagram and TikTok to promote factually correct information about vaccines, the issues come down to the medium as well as the message.
When vaccines were first becoming available, Tralins said, she noticed that on those two platforms, “I wasn’t seeing any factual information circulating about coronavirus vaccines. Instead, the only thing I was really seeing was some conspiracy theories and false information.”
She realized as a human biology, health and society major with a minor in health equity, she had a different outlook than most of her peers.
“Most people my age don’t spend their free time sifting through scientific literature to determine the way that we feel about scientific matters,” she said. “We really look at what’s on our social media. And that influences the way that we feel. I didn’t really feel like my generation was being targeted on social media with factual information.”
With a few other students, she condensed vaccine information from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the New England Journal of Medicine into bright, colorful infographics written for university students. It started at Cornell and then expanded to more than 30 other schools.
For Tralins, the key to get over vaccine hesitancy is to fight misinformation and disinformation with messaging that young people will see on social media.
“The more people the factual information reaches, the less hesitancy I think we’re going to see. And the more people can feel confident about coronavirus vaccines, hopefully they feel more compelled to get one themselves,” she said.
Guest said the public health messaging needs to be totally reframed.
At this point, she said the two choices are “to vaccinate or to get covid-19.”
“We need to get the message out that as older age groups are more heavily vaccinated, they’re not going to be the folks that get covid-19. It’s going to be the groups that aren’t vaccinated,” she said.
She also suggested talking about the longer-term consequences of a covid infection. “We need to be very clear that if you get it, even if you have very, very mild symptoms, or are even asymptomatic, we are still seeing long-term consequences in those cases.”
On an individual level, when talking to friends or loved ones, Guest suggested asking people their “why” in hesitating. For young women, she said, concerns about fertility seem to be ranking high, and dispelling those concerns, which have been proven to be baseless, helps.
Varela is not as hopeful about converting those who aren’t getting their doses. She sees the situation as one about access and exposure to health care in general.
“Honestly, a lot of people my age don’t see health-care professionals at all, because they can’t afford to,” she said. “I think it would have to take something really drastic to convince people my age to get it or to convince people of any age to get it. Because the worst thing that we could have imagined has almost entirely passed — at least in America — and that’s all people here care about.”