Stanford and a number of Ivy League schools have mandated that students on campus must wear masks and be tested for COVID weekly. This mandate is for both those who are vaccinated and those who are not. This policy is well-intentioned, but for young adults frustrated with pandemic life, this begs the question: Why should they get vaccinated if the restrictions are going to remain no matter what?
Young people are disproportionately likely to be unvaccinated, and in response, the White House has taken unusual steps to make the vaccine seem more attractive. For instance, the White House hired TikTok influencers and popstars to help boost uptake. None of these efforts address the reason younger people don’t want to get a shot, though.
Children and young adults have a much lower risk of hospitalization and death from COVID than other age groups. This is a well-known fact, and it affects how young people view the attractiveness of the vaccine. The New York Times reported that:
But the straightforward sales pitch for older people — a vaccine could very possibly save your life — does not always work on healthy 20-somethings who know they are less likely to face the severest outcomes of Covid. . . . public health officials now face an overlapping mix of inertia, fear, busy schedules and misinformation as they try — sometimes one person at a time — to cajole Gen Z into getting a shot.
There just isn’t a powerful health incentive for young people to get a vaccine, especially for those that are politically apathetic or have previously contracted COVID. However, “returning to normal” is both biologically and psychologically good for young adults. Therefore, the best way to incentivize young people to get the vaccine is to allow them greater personal freedoms if they get inoculated.
Unfortunately, the recent actions of public schools and private universities are undercutting that incentive structure. If both vaccinated and unvaccinated students must abide by the same COVID restrictions, vaccine-skeptical people won’t see much reason to get the shot. If schools truly want to incentivize vaccines, they should follow the NFL’s vaccine protocols.
NFL players that are fully vaccinated can practice and train without limitations. However, those that are unvaccinated must wear masks, stay socially distant, take COVID tests, and abide by other restrictions. Furthermore, if a team has an outbreak, that team could forfeit the game, and the players will have their pay docked. These incentives work; nearly 90 percent of NFL players have received the vaccine.
Colleges shouldn’t implement identical protocols, obviously, but the point is to line up the right incentives. Unvaccinated students could be instructed to wear masks and socially distance themselves. Schools could also mandate COVID testing, and if students are positive, they would be forced to quarantine. Students would have the freedom to make their own vaccination decision, but they would do so in an environment that makes the pros and cons of their decision quite clear.
Young people are spreading the Delta variant faster than ever before. Rather than relying on TikTok influencers, our leading institutions should consider why young adults aren’t getting vaccinated. You wouldn’t think that the National Football League would have a more sensible vaccine policy than universities such as Stanford, but stranger things have happened in the last two years.
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