Getting COVID-19 shots in the arms of young adults a challenge for public health experts

As public health officials race to vaccinate enough Americans to reach herd immunity against the new virus, getting shots in the arms of young adults might prove to be a major challenge, according to two recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CHICAGO — Sally Vala says she has no desire to get the COVID-19 vaccine, in part because she’s relatively young and has no major health problems.

“I am 30 and have no reason to get vaccinated,” said the west suburban Downers Grove woman. “I’m healthy, exercise and have been fine since this whole thing started. No plans on getting the vaccine.”

As public health officials race to vaccinate enough Americans to reach herd immunity against the new virus, getting shots in the arms of young adults might prove to be a major challenge, according to two recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In one study, nearly a quarter of 18- to 39-year-olds surveyed in the spring said they would “probably or definitely not” get vaccinated.

Adults aged 18 to 24 were least likely to report getting immunized and most likely to describe being unsure or definitely planning to forgo vaccination.

Worries about the safety and effectiveness of the shots “were the primary reported reasons for not getting vaccinated,” the study concluded.

“Vaccination intent and acceptance among adults aged 18 to 39 years might be increased by improving confidence in vaccine safety and efficacy while emphasizing that vaccines are critical to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to friends and family and for resuming social activities,” the study found.

Another recent CDC study found that while 57% of all adults had received at least one vaccine dose by late May, the rate varied greatly by age. Among those older than 65, 80% were at least partially vaccinated, compared with only about 38% of those aged 18 to 29.

While some of the lag could be due to later vaccine eligibility since older age groups had been prioritized earlier in the year, vaccination rates for those under 65 weren’t increasing as quickly compared with those for older Americans, according to the study.

All adults nationwide were eligible to get the vaccine by mid-April.

“Vaccination coverage was lower among younger age groups in all states, regardless of timing of expanded vaccine eligibility to all adults,” the report said.

The second study found that vaccination rates tended to be lower for men than women, except among adults over 65. Those residing in less urban areas, living in poverty, and lacking insurance and internet access were also less likely to be vaccinated, according to the report.

“If the current rate of vaccination continues through August, coverage among young adults will remain substantially lower than among older adults,” the study concluded. “Efforts to improve vaccination coverage are needed, especially among younger adults, to reduce COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”

‘Age is a factor’

For Vala, the choice to skip the shot was a bit of a cost-benefit analysis.

She said she believes she has less chance of contracting the virus or having a serious case because she’s younger and has no health issues. She’s also seen others have some side effects from COVID-19 vaccines, which she’d prefer to avoid.

“I think age is a factor in that there is significantly less risk being younger,” she said. “I understand it being more important for older people like 70-plus to get the vaccine. … I feel that I wouldn’t be as much at risk as the higher risk groups, the older people.”

Although Vala said she’s not an “anti-vaxxer” — she received typical childhood vaccines that had been on the market for years — she expressed concern about taking new immunizations, despite significant research supporting their safety and effectiveness.

Like the rest of the nation, Illinois is also seeing lower vaccination rates among younger adults statewide, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“We are hearing reasons for lower vaccination rates among young adults similar to what we hear for flu vaccination and other preventive measures,” she said. “Young invincibles who do not believe if they get COVID-19 it will be that bad.”

But Arnold stressed that even those with less severe or asymptomatic cases can spread the virus to children who are too young to be vaccinated or those with health conditions, whose immune system didn’t build up enough of a response.

“Those individuals could suffer severe illness,” she said. “Additionally, as long as the virus is allowed to circulate, it can mutate and create new variants for which the currently authorized vaccines may not be as effective.”


“While vaccination is a personal choice, the outcome of that choice impacts everyone in the community,” Arnold said. “We encourage everyone 12 years and older who can to be vaccinated as soon as possible so we can end this pandemic.”

As for Vala, she has heard of various lotteries, events and free giveaway promotions tied to vaccination, but finds them silly; she said she believes the decision to get immunized is personal.

The choice has ramifications in various social circles: Vala has noticed that many people are posting their vaccination status in online dating app profiles.

“Why advertise, it should be a personal decision,” she said. “But I understand that if someone wants to only be around other vaccinated people, that’s their choice.”

Most of her friends and acquaintances are also unlikely to get the shots, she said.

One of her friends loves going to concerts, some of which might require proof of vaccination. But Vala said the friend will likely just forgo those events that mandate COVID-19 shots. While Vala has never done so, she thinks some people will just get fake vaccine cards to attend events.

“I’m not sure if people’s minds can get changed, one way or another,” she said.

“The reality is many younger Americans have felt like COVID-19 is not something that impacts them, and they’ve been less eager to get the shot,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said in late June. “However, with the delta variant now spreading across the country, and infecting younger people worldwide, it’s more important than ever that they get vaccinated.”

The push comes as COVID-19 cases are surging in swaths of Arkansas, Texas and Missouri.

Matthew Leal, 34, was born and raised in Chicago but moved to St. Louis about a year ago. He was among the first of his friends to get vaccinated against COVID-19 back in April.

“I definitely vaccine hunted,” he said.

His husband caught the virus in December and they spent two weeks on separate sides of their home, masking round-the-clock and sanitizing surfaces as much as possible.

Leal got tested for the virus several times, but none came back positive. While he’s younger and healthy, he was still eager to get immunized to avoid getting ill.

But he’s been shocked by how many friends his age have opted to forgo the vaccine. Most of them are college-educated, bucking some of the trends among unvaccinated adults, he said. He’s noticed that more men than women in his social circle express vaccine hesitancy, and he even knows some younger couples where the wife is vaccinated and the husband is not.

“It just seems crazy to me that people are willing to just shake the dice,” he said. “I was determined to get it, and get it as soon as I possibly could.”

Leal said some of those expressing vaccine hesitancy point to the nation’s brief pause on use of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in April amid reports of rare blood clots, despite the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation to resume use.

“It gave people an inch to run a mile,” he said. “And just confirm their bias that they already had toward it.”

He’s concerned about soaring COVID-19 positivity rates in more rural swaths of Missouri, where vaccination rates remain low; hospital beds are filling with young, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, and some are being sent hundreds of miles away to hospitals in St. Louis and Kansas City.

For Leal, life has largely returned to normal since he got vaccinated. While he still wears a mask in crowded, indoor spaces, he isn’t too concerned about contracting the virus or the vaccination status of strangers.

While he wishes others would get the vaccine too, he said he’s not out trying to convince anyone.

“I’m vaccinated,” he said. “My whole family is vaccinated. That’s what I care about most. I don’t think I have the energy to do it, to try and change someone’s mind.”

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