Stop Blaming Young People for the Low COVID Vaccination Rate

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


August 17, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine.

Not long ago, President Joe Biden gave a major speech. He called upon people to do better. He said that we have to get more people vaccinated and he singled out, in particular, Generation Z. These are young people under, say, 30 years of age, who are vaccinating at very low rates. He said, "You all have to do better."

He didn't call them out, but there's another group that's not vaccinating at very high rates either, including first responders and some healthcare workers. Their vaccination rates are hovering around 30%. Among Massachusetts state police, Los Angeles County police, and a number of other police departments, for example, 40% or worse are vaccinated.

What are we going to do about the unvaccinated? I think President Biden and our leaders, as well as many governors, have created a problem and they're putting the blame partly in the wrong place. It's pretty tempting to say that Generation Z must be lazy, they don't care, or they're selfish.

I think there's a very clear reason why Generation Z, younger people, are not getting vaccinated at high rates: Our government, state officials, and federal officials have given the impression that we've won the battle against COVID-19. They have said to take off your masks, go back to work, get out and enjoy shows, and get back to those restaurants.

If I'm Generation Z, I'm thinking to myself, I don't need a vaccine. Things are good. Although President Biden definitely flagged the need to do more in that group, many politicians are behaving as if everything's over and the epidemic is done. If you hear that, you're thinking, why should I take a day off to go get a vaccine?

I think Generation Z may be getting a bad rap. They basically are being accused of not being willing to help others by vaccinating when, in fact, if we think that this thing is over prematurely — and I think we are thinking prematurely — then the motivation to do something is much less. When us old people were getting vaccinated, we were freaking out that we were going to be killed by the virus.

Now, young people are thinking, it wasn't that bad for me anyway. Because everybody has torn their masks off and is showing up at parties and restaurants, if I were in that generation, I'm not sure I'd be that motivated to vaccinate either. You have to come up with different messaging.

A healthy chunk of people only has had one shot of the two. That's inadequate protection. That's another group we've got to pay attention to in terms of rounding out protection.

I think I know what's going on with the vaccine reluctance of our first responders and some of our healthcare workers. Many of them say, "I have already been exposed to COVID," or "I had COVID, so I don't think I need a vaccine."

In part, that's true. There is natural immunity, but with new strains out there that might not be stopped by natural immunity, the smart and safe thing to do is for our frontline workers to act on their desire to help others, to act on their sensibilities to not get infected again by something different, and to get vaccinated.

We're in a weird situation with the problem of nonvaccinators. On the one hand, we're all celebrating. We're happy because it looks like we can get out there and go back to normal. That's a message that many governors, state legislators, and federal officials are sending. They want to bring back work, schools, and good times — and I think they want some credit.

On the other hand, we're not out of this COVID-19 epidemic. It may have quieted down, but there are threats out there from overseas, and there are still many people who aren't vaccinated who still might get sick from existing strains of SARS-CoV-2.

The message ought to be that we're doing pretty well, but we have to do better. If you're in Generation Z, we'll bring the vaccines to where you work and where you live. We'll try to make it easy, but you have to do it.

To the one-shot people: Come on, folks, you have to get your second shot. You're not protected by one shot.

To the first responders: Don't be relying only on natural immunity to protect you. Take the shot. It's no big deal, it's safe, and it works. It'll protect you against new strains, and you'll do the right thing by the people you're trying to help as a nurse, ambulance worker, fireman, or policeman. You'll be giving better protection to everybody.

Let's get the message straight here. We're not out of the woods yet. That's the only way we're going to get people to keep vaccinating.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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