Why aren’t young Vermonters getting vaccinated?

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Trey Tomasi, 23, received the Covid-19 vaccine at a walk-in clinic inside North Beach Park in Burlington on May 20, 2021. Only about 53% of all Vermont 18- to 29-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont is leading the nation in its Covid-19 vaccination effort and is likely just days away from 80% of all eligible residents receiving at least one shot, a threshold at which the state will relax nearly all restrictions still in place.

But that topline number hides variability about who is — or isn’t — getting jabbed. One particular standout demographic? Young adults.

Only about 53% of all 18- to 29-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Vermont Department of Health. That’s more than 20 percentage points lower than the vaccination rate (74%) for 30- to 39-year-olds, who became eligible for the shots just a week earlier. 

It’s also a fairly large slice of Vermont’s total population. More than 83,000 people in the state are between the ages of 20 and 29, according to data provided by the state.

Vaccination rates among the young are lagging nationally. That’s not entirely surprising, according to Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University, given how much worse outcomes have been for older populations.

“From my perspective, the big issue really — especially for younger folks — is just the perception around the severity of the pandemic,” he said.

But the young can still die, be hospitalized, or suffer lingering symptoms for weeks or months after being infected with Covid-19. And large populations of unvaccinated young people could be a major vulnerability from a public health perspective. 

“Knowing that the virus is still spreading, and knowing that these variants are out there — and how quickly we’re seeing the emergence of new variants — that is actually really concerning,” Bednarczyk said.

Vermont has shifted its immunization strategy in recent weeks in an attempt to make vaccines more accessible. Several clinics this week targeted the hospitality sector at inns and restaurants across the state. Walk-in, pop-up clinics were held over the weekend at recreation sites, including the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, the Thunder Road stock-car track in Barre and several state parks.

“When it comes to young Vermonters, our strategy is to meet them where they are and make vaccination as easy as possible,” said Ben Truman, a spokesperson for the Vermont Department of Health. The state is also making a push to get on social media, he said, with advertisements on YouTube and an Instagram account. (A presence on TikTok, Truman said, is coming soon.)

But the young are also overrepresented in low-wage, frontline jobs that are unlikely to offer flexibility or paid time off. Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College, said that while pop-up clinics and creemee coupon incentives don’t hurt, they may still be missing some of the barriers that are in the way. 

“We have to think beyond that,” she said of creemee-style incentives and pop-up clinics. “These are not structural interventions.” She also pointed to Kaiser Family Foundation research that suggests a lack of paid time off work is a particularly important problem.

Tim Lahey, an infectious disease physician and director of clinical ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center, credited Vermont for making a concerted push to reach the most vulnerable and narrow racial disparities in its vaccination rates. 

“We have to keep on doing the same thing — but shifting the focus to essential workers and people in counties that have lower vaccination rates and sort of just keep on working on that,” he said.

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