SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is leading the country in the number of 12- to 15-year-olds rushing to get their COVID-19 vaccination shots, but the age group above them is comparatively not as enthusiastic.
While 91.2% of people aged 80-plus are fully vaccinated to protect against COVID-19 in Utah, as every group gets younger, the vaccination rate declines, according to Utah Department of Health data.
For the youngest state in the country, lagging vaccinations by age represent a real problem.
So why is age a predictor of COVID-19 vaccination rates? We reached out to various young people to tell us about their experiences.
The easy answer to age leading to lower vaccination rates is that the virus is much less likely to cause hospitalizations or deaths in younger people.
In Utah, 96,329 people between the ages of 15 and 24 have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, the Utah Department of Health reports as of June 8. Of those cases, 1,246 people were hospitalized (1.3%) and seven died.
Similarly, 145,051 Utahns between the ages of 25 and 44 have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began and 90 have died.
With hospitalizations and deaths so low, some young people have put off or skipped the vaccine because they believe the side effects could be worse for them than actually getting the virus.
"I've had close people to me die," Erynn Kerrigan, a 29-year-old mom of three who works from home, said of COVID-19, but that she sees "the possible risk of the vaccine outweighing the chances of me dying if I get it."
"Sometimes I'm a little bit concerned that maybe if I get it, I'm one of those asymptomatic people and I pass it on to others," Kerrigan added. "But I'm just kind of nervous of the potential risks of it."
The reason that I waited so long is just because I've had it already relatively recently — and it was like, literally nothing.
–Ben Pratt, 20-year old University of Utah student
Kerrigan said she's had parents, siblings, and older friends get vaccinated and doesn't see herself as an "anti-vaxxer" or someone against getting vaccinated. She sees healthy eating and an active lifestyle as a way to lessen the effects of COVID-19 infection.
Asked if there was a time she would be vaccinated, Kerrigan said, "I think if maybe more people under 30 were getting it. The majority of my friends have not received it and are very against it.
"It's like this weird generational thing."
Ben Bratt, a 20-year old University of Utah student, got his first COVID-19 shot two or three weeks ago. "The reason that I waited so long is just because I've had it already relatively recently — and it was like, literally nothing," Pratt said of his experience being infected with the coronavirus.
"I figured why not just wait to see if there's something awful that happens, or to see if there's side effects or something; basically just don't get the first round," Pratt said. "But nothing really bad has happened so I figured — amazeballs!"
He did note that waiting to get vaccinated led him to avoid the Johnson and Johnson vaccine due to extremely rare reports of some clotting side effects. Instead, Pratt picked the Moderna vaccine.
While mortality rates and deaths from COVID-19 are lower for young people, the American Medical Association has found that nearly one-third of COVID-19 survivors suffer 'long-hauler' symptoms that last for months. While receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a reliable way to decrease the severity of COVID-19 infection, unvaccinated people remain at risk.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that while hospitalizations and deaths are lower for young people, they can still catch COVID-19 and get severe symptoms, especially if they are obese, have high blood pressure or diabetes.
Utah made all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations on March 24. But for many college students, this was one of the worst times possible.
"The timing really did suck," said Ryan Knippel, a University of Utah student who moved home to Las Vegas amid remote learning.
"Earlier in the semester I had a lot of free time, but as the semester went on — and especially during finals — a lot of classes were assigning really big essays or big projects, or even tests themselves."
"When you have all of that stuff to do, taking a day off means not submitting a paper right, or it means submitting it late — and that's just not something that's really sustainable," Knippel said. "If I had taken a day off, my grades most certainly would have suffered."
For many students, getting vaccinated at the first appointments open to them in late March or early April meant facing a second dose on the week before or of final exams.
If I had taken a day off, my grades most certainly would have suffered.
–Ryan Knipple, University of Utah student
Gov. Spencer Cox publicly disagreed with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine pause at the time, saying that the vaccine was essential in reaching hard-to-reach communities. Among them, he mentioned college students who were about to return home for the summer and would be unable to schedule their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations at the same place.
Knippel says he received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine approximately two weeks ago, after completing all of his coursework.
"I put it off for quite a while," Knippel said, "largely because I just never really had a convenient day to do it."
Work, work, work
It's no secret that lower-income Americans have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 and its accompanying recession.
Young people are among the most likely groups to have low-income and entry-level jobs, and they were also among the most likely to tell Pew Research in 2020 that they or someone in their house had lost work due to the pandemic.
With the job market at its worst point for new graduates since the Great Depression and career opportunities scarce, many young people who are lucky to have any type of job feel pressure to keep it. That's not always conducive with taking time off to get vaccinated. Though in many cases, getting a COVID-19 vaccination doesn't take that much time at all.
Kerrigan's husband, Brian, is a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients and those in intensive care units. He passed on early opportunities to get vaccinated before the general public because he was worried about vaccine side effects and making enough money if he had to take time off because of those.
"He's like, 'I'm a front-line worker, and I don't want to be out for three weeks; I've been the main provider of my family,'" Erynn Kerrigan explained of her husband's thought process. "'And if I'm a front-line worker and I get out, who is going to help the really, really sick people?'"
The Great Recession and COVID-19 recession have both contributed to a generational wealth gap for millennials and members of Gen Z, too. Many of them don't have the money to take off from work.
"I wasn't concerned about the side effects, but I was concerned that they would put me out of commission, you know, for a day at work," said Knippel, who works as a full-time barista in addition to being a full-time student.
"I'm on my feet for eight hours a day," Knippel noted. "I'm lifting heavy objects, I'm walking around all day. ... I most certainly could not have gone to work and done even a halfway decent job if I were experiencing some of the side effects from the vaccine that other people reported."
"I actually ended up going to work the day after getting the vaccine," Knippel admitted, "and it was a pretty rough time."
"It's already hard enough working full time and being a full-time student, but then having both of those pressures compounded with the risk of having to take a day or two off is just ... unimaginable," Knippel said.
"I'm wondering how many people have put off getting vaccinated because of that," he said.
A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Institute suggested that 47% of Americans who are in the "wait and see" group of the vaccine process would be more likely to get the shot if they received paid time off to recover from potential side effects.