Editor’s Note: Matt Alexander is a third-year medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Jesper Ke is a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
As medical students and Gen-Z’ers who were born after the mid-1990’s, we’re deeply concerned about the latest Covid-19 surge in Michigan, partly driven by younger adults who are unvaccinated and tired of pandemic restrictions.
However, what worries us more is that Michigan may be a bellwether of what the pandemic will look like elsewhere: case counts surpassing the fall wave and hospitals deferring elective surgeries as states scramble to vaccinate their remaining population. In order to prevent this, we need to get young adults vaccinated. But to do that, we must address vaccine hesitancy first among young adults and the lack of messaging targeted specifically toward a key constituency: Gen Z.
There is real cause for concern about this. A new Quinnipiac University poll found that 36% of Americans under 35 don’t plan on getting the vaccine.
This is not a new phenomenon. Historically, younger adults have poor vaccination rates. According to an American Academy of Family Physicians survey, they are least likely to get a flu shot, despite being one of the most affected age groups. In Louisiana, where younger adults have been eligible for the Covid vaccine, providers have yet to see increased demand in 18 to 39-year-olds as they did with older adults. And, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 10% of those fully vaccinated are 18 to 29-year-olds.
Some of this hesitancy can be attributed to a desire to avoid negative side effects or simply a feeling of invincibility. As Gen-Z’ers, we can relate. Most of the news coverage early in the pandemic focused on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on older adults, and it was well-documented that younger people tended to experience fewer complications. However, a study analyzing mortality rates for adults aged 25-44 between March 2020 and July 2020 suggested that Covid–related mortality may have been underdetected in this population.
That’s why it is worrisome to see that, according to a recent study, Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy is highest in adults aged 18-44 among all US adults.
Returning to normal will also require herd immunity, which some experts estimate will happen when between 75%-85% of the US population is vaccinated. Vaccinating Gen Z adults is especially important given the large role they play in spreading the virus. Younger adult infections have often led to spikes in cases in other age groups in the US.
The CDC models also show that asymptomatic carriers account for nearly 60% of US Covid-19 spread; younger adults are more likely to be asymptomatic. Encouraging Gen-Z’ers to get vaccinated will further be crucial in winning the ongoing race between new, more contagious Covid-19 variants and vaccination rates.
But the latest focus on Gen Z’s current perceptions misses a larger point: that these views can be changed if our generation is engaged meaningfully, which is not happening.
As a report in STAT News pointed out, little to no messaging on the Covid-19 vaccine seems to be tailored to Gen Z adults. Moreover, targeted messaging campaigns are not reaching our generation on the popular platforms we use, like Instagram, TikTok and Clubhouse. Engaging trusted influencers on these platforms, in addition to trusted health messengers, can be one way to share information and raise awareness about getting vaccinated. It’s also important to amplify the efforts of college student leaders who are working to fill this gap in messaging.
This should include highlighting the CDC’s guidance for fully vaccinated people, which includes being able to visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or socially distancing; enjoying outdoor activities like walking, running, hiking or biking alone or with members of their household without a mask; and resuming domestic and international travel without being required to get a Covid test (unless required by international destination). Going to some places will be difficult without proof that you are fully vaccinated, which should also be included in the messaging. For a demographic that enjoys to travel, reminders of these facts will surely get Gen Z’s attention.
Additionally, health and government officials must honestly address concerns and barriers raised by Gen-Z adults regarding vaccination. Some concerns include the potential effects of Covid vaccines on fertility – the CDC says there is no evidence that there are any – or extremely rare side effects, like blood clotting from the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which can be addressed by emphasizing the efficacy of the vaccine and low prevalence of side effects.
Potential barriers to access include inability to get vaccinated due to fear of missing work, school or caretaking duties. While it will be challenging to create effective campaigns that resonate authentically with Gen Z, it’s a necessary step to build trust among our generation.
Policy leaders also need to engage our generation using creative incentives. Israel, the world leader in vaccinations, struggled with vaccinating younger people and began offering free food and beverages. It’s been encouraging to see private businesses and local governments in the US start stepping forward in similar ways, including Krispy Kreme’s free donut offer or West Virginia’s plan to provide a $100 savings bond to every resident aged 16-35 who gets vaccinated.
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Additionally, more colleges have announced Covid-19 vaccination requirements for students returning to in-person learning. Such mandates, coupled with perks like loosened health and safety protocols or access to sporting events, can help nudge Gen Z adults who are hesitant about getting the shots.
As vaccine supply catches up with demand, the nation’s attention has centered on how to reach out to key vaccine holdouts like racial and ethnic minorities or White, evangelical Christians. However, it’s important that we don’t overlook Gen Z adults, who make up a sizable proportion of the movable middle. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve neglected to speak their language, include them in stimulus bills, and failed to adequately address its impact on their mental health. The latest wave of cases shows that we need a collective effort. It’s time to give Gen Z a seat at the table.