Reading this title, you’re probably shaking your head in disbelief, disgruntlement, or more than likely a passionate mixture of the two. And for good reason: It’s no secret that seniors are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, especially when considering that they are drastically more likely to require hospitalization and even die if they do contract the virus. Further, if you’re among those registered for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, you’ve probably sat at the computer clicking the refresh button relentlessly. Given the scarcity of available appointments, it may seem rashly irresponsible and even selfish for a teenager like me to ask that we start prioritizing the vaccination of young adults over seniors. In reality, I say this not because I am a young adult fearful of the virus, but rather, because I want to protect the older generation.
First and foremost, I do not believe that young adults should have been offered the vaccine first; rather, communities should prioritize vaccinating young adults now. Given that most older Americans have already been vaccinated, a pivotal step in reducing the overall mortality rate, the time has come to focus on minimizing transmission. On Monday, the U.S. took one major leap toward transmission reduction: it made all adults over 16 eligible for vaccination. While this choice lifted a legal barrier, there are still many other barriers to immunization, including concern for unvaccinated seniors. However, at this stage of the vaccine rollout, the vaccination of young adults likely benefits seniors more than individually vaccinating seniors themselves.
Although the term “prioritize” insinuates opposition, implying competition over a currently limited resource, it is important to note that the wellbeing of youth and seniors are intrinsically intertwined. Statistically, young adults are the most likely of any age group to bypass mitigation behaviors, or preventative acts to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19, like physical distancing and mask-wearing. According to 2020 surveys conducted by the CDC, people aged 18–29 reportedly adhered to mitigation guidelines the least out of any age group and at all surveyed timepoints, while people over 60 did so the most. Young adults’ comparative resistance to preventative measures likely contributes to their higher risk for both contracting and spreading the virus, and while they tend to suffer fewer consequences (i.e., lower rates of hospitalization and death), their low duration of illness makes them even more efficient transmitters to people of all ages.
Moreover, young adults are far more likely to be asymptomatic, making them even more dangerous when exposed to seniors, as they would be less inclined to avoid daily activities like work, school, social gatherings, and more. In contrast, seniors tend not to work and are far less likely to be exposed to as many “new” individuals as adults and youth. In fact, 27 percent of Americans over 60 live alone: further testament to their lesser contributions to COVID-19 spread. When coupled with having more social interactions and asymptomatic cases, young adults’ tendency to bypass mitigation behaviors makes them far more effective spreaders, allowing for new branches of COVID cases to quickly trickle down. Subsequently, vaccinating a young adult lowers their chances of contracting the virus and simultaneously breaks the exponential chain of transmission that could occur and potentially infect even more seniors than initially vaccinating a senior.
This is not just reasoned conjecture. We can look to historical examples to see how prioritizing the vaccination of young people benefits seniors to a greater degree than just vaccinating seniors themselves does. For instance, a 2001 study that focused on Japanese vaccination efforts during an influenza epidemic found that vaccinating children reduced mortality from influenza among seniors, disrupting its spread. Similarly, mathematical models suggest that vaccinating younger individuals greatly amplifies herd immunity compared to older people and further protects older people more effectively. A transmission model generated by Dr. Kate Bubar et al. of the University of Colorado Boulder shows that, in cases of lower transmission of COVID-19, “vaccination of adults aged 20 to 49 years reduced mortality and [years of life lost] more than the alternative strategies” According to the model, vaccinating this age group also reduced cumulative incidence in all cases. Historically, vaccinating young people has contributed the most to building herd immunity, and given that over 80 percent of individuals over 60 have already received their first shot, reducing transmission should be the nation’s next priority.
It’s important to remember that the benefits of vaccinating young adults are not just limited to physical health. Vaccinating young adults as quickly as possible will jumpstart economic recovery, improving the quality of life for both young adults and seniors alike. As schools, shops, and restaurants begin to reopen, we will eventually be able to go back to all of the social activities that we once enjoyed freely, perhaps even pushing back against the mental health effects of the pandemic. We will be able to cherish every last moment alongside our seniors — without a mask on, this time. So, if you’re concerned about the elderly, don’t hesitate to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment today.
Lara Karacasu is an undergraduate student.
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