Patricia Smithson, 23, thought about her aunt in New York who died alone of COVID-19 when she decided to get her vaccine.
Benny Romero, 24, hasn’t found the time to get his yet and might wait a little longer.
Gracie Poynter, 21, knows her concerns about the safety of the shots could jeopardize her job in health care.
They’re all part of a group once considered a low priority in the nation’s vaccine rollout: Generation Z, loosely defined as those in their mid-20s and younger. But now that vaccinations are readily available to Americans 12 and up, the nation’s lagging vaccine rate among young adults is raising alarms.
It’s an increasingly urgent concern as the especially-contagious delta variant circulates in the U.S. and schools and colleges ready for a return to in-person classes this fall.
“Now is the window of opportunity,” Judy Klein – president of Unity Consortium, a non-profit that advocates for vaccine protection for adolescents and young adults – told USA TODAY. If high rates of unvaccinated students show up at schools, that’s a recipe for COVID outbreaks and yet another semester derailed by the virus, she fears.
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A June U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that only about half of adults 24 and under were “vaccinated or definitely planning to get vaccinated.” That report called out the group’s low vaccine rates as compared with other age groups, but noted that a large number of young adults hadn’t made up their mind yet.
Smithson, a health care worker from Orlando, Florida, was once among them. She was wary at first about rolling up her sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine because of its rapid development and release.
“All of a sudden, there was this vaccine, out of nowhere,” Smithson said. “And it was made in less than a year; it was just a little bit of hesitancy about what exactly I was putting into my body.”
The turning point for Smithson was the number of people in her own life who died from COVID-19, including her aunt, Gloria. Smithson said she realized she “knew more people who died from COVID than people who died that received the vaccine.”
The memory of her aunt’s final days is haunting: “She was in the apartment sick for about three days before they rushed her to the hospital,” Smithson said. “And before they took her, they let my uncles and my cousins know, ‘Say your last goodbyes because this is probably the last that you’ll see her.’ And she died not too long after that.
“She was by herself; there was nobody with her. A good amount of the family wasn’t even able to go to the funeral because of everything that was going on. It was pretty tragic.”
COVID vaccine benefits vs. side effects
Smithson’s personal experience helped ease her concerns about the vaccine, but millions of young Americans remain uncertain. Experts told USA TODAY young adults face a torrent of misinformation about the vaccine from social media and a longstanding narrative that COVID-19 primarily sickens older adults.
And they’re being asked to make the decision amid a dizzying return to a more normal life as the nation largely drops pandemic restrictions.
Poynter – who works in Indiana as a patient care assistant – said she isn’t against vaccinations in general. But the COVID vaccine is too new for her to be comfortable having it in her body.
Romero – who works for UPS in Texas – will likely get the vaccine, but has decided to put it off. He likened that decision to waiting to buy a new gaming console “wait a little bit until like all the bugs were taken out.”
CDC’s data shows those concerns are common: More than half of young adults surveyed who were undecided or likely to get vaccinated said they were concerned about possible side effects. A similar number said they planned to wait to see if the vaccine is safe.
Amy Middleman, who practices adolescent medicine with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and is a board member of the Unity Consortium, would urge young adults with those concerns to consider the documented health consequences of COVID-19.
“The benefits of vaccination clearly outweigh the risks at this time,” she said. Some of the concerns about long-term side effects she hears from patients are rumors not supported by science.
Young adults who have those fears should feel confident in the “incredibly thorough” review process for the vaccines and safety monitoring, Middleman said.
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Tiffany Menendez, 24, had a similar thought process when she decided to get the vaccine.
The side effects she experienced were fleeting: “I only got a little bit sick, just for a day or two, but I hear with COVID … you get sick for quite a while and you even have side effects lingering in your body for longer than just a week or two, potentially for a lifetime,” Menendez told USA TODAY.
“So, it’s very essential for me to get the vaccine … and not have that COVID sickness in my body.”
Dr. Shira Abeles, an infectious disease specialist with University of California San Diego Health, said those concerns are well-founded.
She remembers the horrific scenes of people in their 30s on ventilators who died. Others suffered “inexplicable fatigue” for months.
Meanwhile, the vaccine’s side effects can be managed with Tylenol. “It’s not like that with COVID,” she said.
Gen Z’s ‘altruistic’ vaccine motives
Many in Gen Z are thinking about their own health when making the decision to get vaccinated, but a regard for the well-being of others motivates some to get the vaccine.
Brittney Baack, an epidemiologist and co-author of the CDC report, told USA TODAY the study found that protecting friends and family was a top priority for young adults.
Klein said the generation’s motives are often “altruistic.”
Ellen Murray, 23, felt the weight of protecting her parents in Atlanta, who are in their 60s and more vulnerable to the virus, throughout the pandemic. That continued even after she got vaccinated because of the state’s low vaccination rates.
“I think the responsibility of somebody else’s health is just a lot more strenuous and it’s a lot more stressful to be worried about potentially – just like a very little mistake you make could have extreme disastrous effects on your parents’ health or your grandparents’ health,” she said.
Caroline Allen, 21, said she took every precaution to safeguard her health and relied on the guidance of the scientific community to navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic. Allen said she “wore my mask like it was my skin,” kept her social circle small and refrained from buying takeout meals from restaurants.
But when she got vaccinated in Orlando, she wasn’t thinking of herself: “I got it [the vaccine] for my grandmother,” Allen told USA TODAY.
Allen’s grandmother, Dorothy, who would have turned 100 in September, died from COVID-19 in January.
“She kept saying, ‘Well, I’m gonna be first in line when they pass out those vaccines,’ so I got it for her.”