Drew McCleod, a 20-year-old sophomore at Abeline Christian University, in Abeline, Texas, hasn’t been vaccinated yet. Although the university recently announced it would receive more than 1,000 doses for its 5,000-plus student body, McCleod is waiting to see what happens to the people who get the shots.
“I talked to my mother about it,” he says. “Her point of view is she’s going to wait about six months to see if there's any anomalies that kind of pop up or abnormalities when it comes to getting vaccinated.”
A relatively low proportion of the more than 125 million Americans who have received at least one dose are young adults. Less susceptible to COVID-19 than older people, they’ve been low on the priority list for shots. Most have only recently become eligible in many states. Now colleges are ramping up efforts to get their students vaccinated. Even so, some young adults are still skeptical.
Although 23-year-old Chloe Sims works as a nurse, she hesitated when the Houston, Texas, hospital where she works began offering vaccinations to staff. “I wanted to lay low for a little bit and see how it affects my peers and my colleagues,” she says. But her daily shifts treating COVID patients changed her mind. “I still live at home right now, and I wasn't wanting to put my family at risk.”
While personal experience tipped Sims toward vaccination, others can’t shake their misgivings. “There are multiple reasons why I'm not getting vaccinated,” says Deja Harrison, a senior at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana. She points to an article she read about inmates being paid to take the vaccine. “I feel like if you have to pay people in jail to take the vaccine, there’s something wrong with it, like it's some type of experiment,” Harrison says.
The Black community’s history with previous vaccines and medical research such as the Tuskegee study, which left hundreds of Black men untreated for syphilis, is another reason Harrison won’t get the vaccine. News that residents of low-income communities were offered free rides to vaccination sites immediately made her suspicious. “I feel like they're targeting a lot of Black people, a lot of low-income areas, which are in Black neighborhoods.”
But, as with Drew McCleod, the most influential deterrent to vaccination is her mother. “My mom, she's not big on vaccines if it's not the mandatory vaccine,” says Harrison. “She's always like, don't get it because they're always coming out with something new and then years down the line they're like if you took this, you might get this type of cancer.” That’s what her family believes happened to her grandfather.
Jameson Floyd, a 2020 Morehouse College graduate who has already received his first dose, questions the narrative around many Black people refusing to take the vaccine. “The evidence shows that it's not that they don't want to do it,” says Floyd, who works for a major medical research institution. “They're skeptical. There’s a difference.”
Floyd waited to get his vaccine because he knew there were people who probably needed it more. “I didn't want to jump the line.”
Not everyone is hesitant
Some young adults are so excited to get the shots, they post their vaccine cards to Instagram or Twitter. In a video that went viral, University of Illinois gymnast Evan Manivong brandished his card after nailing the vault routine at a meet. “Go get vaccinated everyone!” he tweeted afterward.
Colleges and universities are hoping more students will follow Manivong’s advice. As eligibility has expanded, they’ve made plans to vaccinate students before the end of spring semester, with the hope of a return to something resembling normal campus life in the fall.
“The vast majority of the faculty and staff have already been vaccinated, and we have vaccinated well over 4,000 of our students,” said Kent Syverud, chancellor at Syracuse University, in an interview with CNN. “We’re vaccinating another 800 students in the next 48 hours.”
Some institutions had been relying on the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to immunize their communities quickly. But the recent concerns about extremely rare blood clots has thrown a wrench into those plans. A few universities have had to pause their vaccine clinics while they scramble for other supplies.
Texas Southern University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) located in Houston, has partnered with St. Luke’s Health to host a vaccination clinic on campus that has served local residents, including students, since February.
“As an HBCU located in the heart of Houston, we are a trusted source for those communities that may be hesitant about the vaccine for historical reasons,” says Melinda Spaulding, vice president of university advancement.
“Right now, we have a limited student population on campus because of Covid-19 restrictions for housing but we are publicizing the easy access to our campus clinic for freshmen students in our dorms,” she says. “Appointments are easy, the staff members are friendly, and it helps to keep us all safe.”