What colleges can do to counter coronavirus vaccine hesitancy

A growing number of colleges in recent weeks have announced plans to require students and even faculty and staff to get vaccinated against the coronavirus in order to be on campus this fall. For institutions looking to resume full in-person learning, the mass vaccination effort is necessary before pulling back some safety protocols and would make regular campus activity safer.

But to effectively implement those requirements, colleges need to address vaccine hesitancy on campus and in the surrounding community. There are several reasons why people might resist the coronavirus vaccines, among them: they fear the side effects; they don’t think they need them; and systemic racism or political polarization have caused them to distrust science or the government.

Six in 10 of around 1,800 adults surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-March said they have or will get the shots. That’s still short of the amount needed to achieve herd immunity, which experts initially projected to be around 70% of the population — a benchmark they now say is likely unattainable. Nearly 40% of adults said they were hesitant about taking the vaccine or didn’t plan to get it, though that share had been shrinking from prior months, KFF found. 

By relaying information about the development and effectiveness of the vaccines, experts say, colleges can play an important role in addressing some of this hesitancy. 

“We have to listen carefully about what people are concerned about and then we need to respond with clear, consistent information, and you have to repeat the messages,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 Task Force.

Who’s getting vaccinated, and who’s not

KFF’s findings reflect other recent survey data that shows Black adults and Republicans as two of the groups with the highest rates of hesitancy or resistance to the vaccines. Over 40% of Republicans and almost half of Black respondents said in a Morning Consult poll of more than 30,000 U.S. adults in mid-April that they were unsure if they would get vaccinated or that they didn’t plan to. That’s compared to about a third of all adults surveyed who said the same.

Many Black Americans, the population hit hardest by the virus, may be wary of the vaccines because of distrust in the medical profession that has been fueled by a history of racism in medical research and barriers to healthcare.

Other reasons widely cited for not getting vaccinated against the coronavirus include concerns about side effects, a desire to wait for more information about the shots and lack of trust in the government. 

The recent, temporary pause in the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could have also contributed to hesitancy for someone who was already concerned about the vaccines’ safety, said David Abramson, a clinical associate professor and vaccine hesitancy expert at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. More than 40% of 600 undergraduates surveyed by College Pulse this month said they were very or somewhat concerned about the safety of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That includes half of all Republicans surveyed and 37% of Democrats. 

College students are at a point in their lives of “maximal experimentation” socially, culturally and intellectually, and so they may be more receptive to a lot of the ideas posed to them, such as the need to get vaccinated, Abramson said. 

However, only about half of the 18- to 29-year-olds in KFF’s survey said they received the vaccine or will receive it when it becomes available. The Morning Consult survey, conducted a month later, found slightly more interest among young adults.

This group presents another barrier to uptake. Some young adults falsely think they are not at risk of contracting the virus because they are generally less likely to get severely ill from it than older adults, Abramson said. College leaders may need to persuade those students that getting the coronavirus is still a threat to themselves and an even bigger threat to others, he said. 

The allure of returning to in-person campus activities could help. Eighty-five percent of more than 12,000 prospective first-year students surveyed in March said they would enroll in this coming fall if their college required them to get vaccinated.

What colleges can do

Communications staff at Texas A&M University have been busy posting factual information about the vaccines on social media to counter misinformation circulating online, said Shawn Gibbs, dean of Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. They have had to explain that no tracking devices are in the vaccines, the shots are not a form of gene therapy, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not cut corners when approving the vaccines for public use. 

Gibbs’ team also helps arm faculty, administrators and student leaders with accurate information about the vaccines so they are ready with the facts when they encounter misinformation.

The university, which isn’t requiring students to get the shots, is also trying to reach students through social media with messaging based on the institution’s core value of selfless service: Getting vaccinated not only protects themselves but protects others as well. 

Many college leaders have encouraged students to get the vaccine by emphasizing the role individuals on campus can play in protecting others, said Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities

That can be a powerful message, experts say, but the messenger is just as critical. 

Information about the vaccine from key influencers on campus such as members of student groups, fraternities and sororities, as well as resident assistants and student-athletes, carry a lot of weight, Abramson said. A good TikTok video from an influential student on campus, he said, will have a larger impact than a message from the college president. 

Colleges have also attempted to reach students through email or other popular social media channels such Instagram, Mistick said.

“We have to listen carefully about what people are concerned about and then we need to respond with clear, consistent information.”

Anita Barkin

Co-chair of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 Task Force

Some colleges are offering cash and financial incentives to students and employees who show proof they received the vaccine. Wayne State University, in Detroit, offered $10 to students who could show proof of vaccination, while other colleges are offering students a chance to win free meal plans, money for textbooks, housing and parking, gift cards, sunglasses and more. Davidson College, a private liberal arts institution in North Carolina, is giving vaccinated employees $100 bonuses

There are some ethical concerns incentives could entice lower-income students to make a medical decision out of financial necessity, however.

Dickinson State University, in North Dakota, exempted vaccinated students from the campus’s mask mandate. To qualify, they must show school officials their vaccine card and will receive a special pin or bracelet to wear indicating that they can go mask free. 

However, ACHA’s Barkin cautions colleges to keep their vaccine incentives in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC only recently said fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in outdoor spaces unless in crowds and some venues, and it still recommends they wear masks in public, indoor areas.

Keeping tabs on which students get the vaccines will help Roger Williams University, a private institution in Rhode Island, determine when it’s safe to pull back COVID-19 restrictions, said its president, Ioannis Miaoulis. The university is among a growing group of institutions that are requiring the vaccine for students — a move legal experts say colleges are on firm footing to do, though public institutions may face more challenges.

For now, the university hasn’t received much pushback on its decision. If it were to, Miaoulis said, the university would hold virtual meetings with members of the campus community explaining why getting the vaccine is important.

Looking off campus

Some institutions’ role in dispelling vaccine hesitancy extends beyond their campus. 

Howard University has been encouraging its students and faculty to get vaccinated. But as a historically Black college, it also plays an important role in helping the District of Columbia vaccinate its roughly 700,000 residents, nearly half of whom are Black. The university carries a high level of credibility and trust within the district’s Black community, said Hugh Mighty, dean of Howard’s College of Medicine and vice president of clinical affairs.

Getting the district vaccinated is crucial for protecting Howard’s faculty and 10,000 students, if they attend classes in person this fall and live and work in the city and the surrounding region.

To help convince local residents to get the shots, Howard has partnered with the district as well as area churches and community groups to spread the message that the vaccine is safe, explain why people should get it, and dispel common myths through public service announcements, virtual seminars and other programs. 

The institution has also assisted the district by holding a large vaccination site on campus, which Mighty said administered more than 25,000 vaccines by mid-April at a rate of 500 to 700 per day. 

But Howard can only do so much. The most impactful message often comes from those who got the shots, Mighty said. 

“You should get the vaccine because it allows you to get back out and get about and be part of a community,” Mighty said. “It’s a powerful message that we can’t send. We can be educators but we don’t send that message.”

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