The drop in age eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines this week drew throngs of young adults to vaccination sites and brought a fresh dose of optimism to the fight against the coronavirus. Yet too many younger people remain reluctant to get a shot. With everyone over 16 now eligible for a vaccine, educating them about vaccine safety and addressing their lingering concerns should be the focus as we work to get this all-important group vaccinated.
That first morning when everyone 16 and up in Florida became vaccine-eligible, young adults lined up for their shots and talked about feeling peace of mind, returning to normalcy and not having to live in fear. They mused about getting together with friends, eating in restaurants and seeing live music again. Those yearnings are virtually universal, as we inch closer to the lives we used to know and emerge from the strange isolation of the past year. When health care workers swab our arms with alcohol and come at us with a syringe, our response: Bring it on.
It’s working — or making a sizable dent, at least. A majority of adults over 65 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. As a result, hospitalizations are way, way down among the elderly, who were the first group to receive vaccines. That’s the good news. On the flip side, overall cases are increasing again and hospitalizations are ticking back up, driven by rising infection rates among young adults. That widening gap among age groups shows exactly where we should be focusing our vaccination efforts and resources.
It’s widely known that young people are less likely to develop severe symptoms from COVID-19, need hospitalization or die. But that doesn’t mean they’re invincible. Just ask Greg Branch, a 37-year-old pilot who suffered headaches, confusion and fatigue six months after contracting the virus. It’s anyone’s guess who will suffer such long-haul symptoms. So why risk it? And of course, young people can still spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable. Vaccinating the most people, as quickly as possible, is the best way to contain the pandemic.
For those who rushed to book their vaccine appointment at the earliest moment possible, it can be hard to comprehend why lots of folks are hesitant. Yet our evolving understanding of this novel virus has resulted in plenty of mixed messages. Early on, we were told to wipe down our groceries and wear latex gloves in public — practices that are no longer recommended. Even playgrounds were closed until scientists determined that the virus doesn’t live on surfaces long enough to pose a significant threat. So it’s understandable that people meet any absolutist statements about the virus with some skepticism.
That’s why the tone of the messaging is so important. Scolding isn’t as effective as providing the facts in a clear and non judgmental way. Get across that vaccines are safe, effective and critically important, while addressing potential side effects. Emphasize that the technology behind the vaccines is not new but is supported by years of rigorous study and trials. Arming people with that information so they can decide for themselves will do more to build acceptance and trust in vaccines than any government agency ordering people to get a shot. And the more of us who get vaccinated — young and old, from every race, ethnicity and economic group — and celebrate with selfies showing off our band-aids and vaccine cards helps spread the gospel and normalizes the necessity of getting vaccinated.
As we enter this stage of the pandemic with guarded optimism, it’s important not to let up: on continuing safe practices like wearing masks and social distancing; on continuing to ensure vaccine access in every community and on educating those who remain fearful or skeptical. Young adults and teens are the new front in the fight. Every one of them who gets vaccinated further protects us all.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.