As the delta variant slams a younger set of the population, that demographic has emerged as one of the most crucial and stubborn vaccine holdouts.
Sabrina Garcia, 19, was ambivalent about pulling 13-hour shifts at Afton Pub & Pizza in Concord, North Carolina, when the popular restaurant reopened its dining room to customers last May. At the time, Covid-19 cases in the state still numbered into the thousands each day and experts across the nation warned against resuming “normal” life too hastily.
“I was just used to being around so many people,” said Garcia, an incoming freshman at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “I lived my life like it was normal.” Garcia said she never contracted the virus, and didn’t run out to get the shot either. From her point of view, her youth was all the armor she needed to protect her against Covid.
According to recent polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34% of adults in the 18-to-29 age category said they wanted to wait before getting vaccinated, and another 15% said they would not get the vaccine at all.
For Garcia and many in her age group, it isn’t just fear, misinformation or mistrust that’s kept them from getting vaccinated. It’s indifference. A study published in July in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that among unvaccinated young adults, 23% said they felt they could simply go without the shot — mostly because they are not considered a high-risk group. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 54% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 have received one dose or more of the vaccine, the least vaccinated age group among adults.
But the face of Covid-19 is changing, with younger people increasingly getting sick and falling more seriously ill. Since last August, the CDC has reported that more than 117,000 people between 18 and 29 have been hospitalized for Covid, and in the past week, the age group’s hospitalization rate increased 25%.
As the delta variant spreads rapidly through unvaccinated segments of the U.S., the low rate of inoculations among younger Americans has become a major threat to keeping the virus at bay for good. For public health experts, the big question is how to sell vaccination to a population that thinks they’re not at risk in the first place.
The risks for younger people have been seriously underplayed since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Sally Adams, a health researcher at the University of California San Francisco who led the study on unvaccinated young adults. The fact that the age group was the lowest priority for vaccinations only added to that perception.
Adams also said that because young people visit the doctor less frequently, “there’s a lot of missed opportunities to actually hear from a trusted professional.” This can give social media even more sway over young minds.
“A lot of young people feel healthy and invincible,” said Cornell University junior Jordan Tralins, who founded a campus group to address common vaccine questions among fellow students on social media. “They feel if they got Covid, it wouldn’t impact them.”
A flood of misinformation and conspiracies -- including that the vaccine can cause infertility -- swept through social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram when the vaccination campaign started in the U.S. in December. That plus a dearth of official messaging targeting the platforms’ younger users is what led Tralins to create the Covid Campus Coalition, which targets Gen Z with vaccine information on social media.
The organization now has chapters at more than 30 campuses, including the University of Notre Dame and Texas A&M University, which are situated in vaccine-hesitant pockets of the country. In one TikTok video, Tralins cites wanting to go back to parties as one reason to get vaccinated, ending with text on the screen that says, “The vaccine is the solution. Not the risk.”
Official sources have followed Tralins’ lead. On Instagram, the CDC frequently shares stories with catchy infographics and vaccine facts. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden invited 18-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo to the White House to urge young people to get vaccinated.
Tralins said these efforts didn’t come nearly soon enough. Lately, she’s noticed more people saying they simply don’t need the vaccine. In one TikTok video a young girl shakes her head to the music with text that says, “I’ll take my chances without it.”
Tyranny and Ultimatum
The challenge now is changing their minds.
As many young people prepare to return to college for in-person learning later this month, some schools are trying to fend off the spread before it starts, with 631 campuses requiring inoculation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Still, some are resistant to the mandates. Alyssa Jones, a student at Virginia Tech and the state’s chair of Young Americans for Liberty, helped create a petition after hearing that her school would require student vaccinations. Since the mandate was announced on June 8, she said the petition has garnered about 1,000 signatures.
While Jones said she isn’t opposed to people choosing to get vaccinated, she views the university requiring it of all students, and disenrolling them for the fall semester if they don’t get a shot, as “pure tyranny.”
Jones said she’s traveled to 20 states since the pandemic started, and said she hasn’t been masking up or social distancing because she’s been with other young people. “I haven’t needed to,” she said. “I’m just going on with life as it is.”
Garcia, the former pizza-place waitress, didn’t get vaccinated until she was given an ultimatum: Her sister, a 20-year-old at the University of Pennsylvania, said Garcia couldn’t visit unless she got a dose. Plus, her own university’s weekly testing requirements for unvaccinated students meant she could spend hours waiting in line. Garcia got her first shot in June, then her second a month later.
“I wanted to wait a little longer, but I was like, I’m not going to waste my time,” she said. “So I just went ahead and got it.”