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College Students and COVID-19 Vaccines: What You Should Know

Marybeth Bock, MPH

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As spring begins, most college students across the U.S. have yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Exceptions include students who are essential frontline workers, work in a health or childcare setting, or have a high-risk underlying medical condition.

The majority of our students are still waiting to be vaccinated when the age eligibility drops to 25 and under, which depends on where they live and what percentage of older adults have already been vaccinated. Some of our kids may not be offered a vaccine before the end of the academic year, although vaccine production is ramping up very quickly.

Here are some common questions you or your student may have regarding COVID-19 vaccinations:

Q: A college-aged young adult has an extremely low risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19. Why should they even get a vaccine?

It’s important to remember that every vaccine provides two types of protection. The first is the direct protection to the recipient and the second is indirect protection to others by slowing transmission. More vaccinations mean fewer transmissions and a quicker end to this pandemic.

According to Dr. Zoë McLaren, Ph.D., a health and economic policy researcher at UMBC, “Young people have a lot more power to end the pandemic than they might realize. Some modeling studies actually show that, under certain conditions, high vaccination rates of people 16–24 could end the pandemic more quickly than vaccinating the vulnerable…those under 30 who socialize in big networks have an outsized impact on transmission.”

Q: If a college student has already had COVID-19, or assumes they did and were asymptomatic, do they even need a vaccine?

Yes, the CDC recommends that everyone should be vaccinated regardless of whether they already had COVID-19.

That’s because experts don't know yet how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering. Even if a student has already recovered from COVID-19, it's possible — although rare — that they could be infected with the virus, or a variant, that causes COVID-19 again.

Some countries have amended vaccine recommendations to only require one mRNA dose (like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) for people who have previously been infected with and recovered from COVID-19. But here in the U.S., the CDC and the FDA are still currently recommending both doses.

Students should know that if they have COVID-19 symptoms when they are offered a vaccine, they should wait to be vaccinated until they have completely recovered from their illness and have met the criteria for discontinuing isolation.

Q: Could getting a COVID vaccine negatively affect a young adult’s future fertility?

There is no evidence that fertility problems are a side effect of any vaccine, including COVID-19 vaccines, and there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccination causes any problems with pregnancy, including the development of the placenta. In addition, COVID-19 vaccines do not change or interact with someone’s DNA in any way.

According to the CDC, “The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which teach a body’s cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. The mRNA from a COVID-19 vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where DNA is kept.

Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is a viral vector vaccine. It uses a modified version of a different, harmless virus to deliver the instructions to our cells to start building protection. The instructions are delivered in the form of genetic material. This material does not integrate into a person’s DNA.”

Q: So which vaccine is best for a college student to get?

The best vaccine for anyone to get is the first one that they are offered. Vaccine efficacy rates may differ, but as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “Comparing percentages is not what you need to be doing right now. If you go into a clinic and one vaccine is available now, and another one will be available in a month, I would go right for the one that's available now. Given the circulation of viruses in the community, you want to get protected as quickly and as expeditiously as you possibly can.”

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine, with lower efficacy in clinical trials, is still 72% effective in preventing someone from getting moderate to severe disease, but virtually a hundred percent protective against hospitalizations and death. It also might be the most practical one for college students to get given that only one dose is needed.

Q: Can a college student resume “normal life” right after getting vaccinated?

While many people have been and will be tempted to go back to pre-pandemic socializing shortly after their first vaccine which provides most of the protection, people are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series, like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, like Johnson & Johnson’s.

Once fully protected, a college student can then socialize maskless indoors with other fully vaccinated people. However, they should still wear masks when out in public, avoid large crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, not gather with unvaccinated people from more than one other household, nor travel unnecessarily, until CDC recommendations change.

The science surrounding COVID-19 will continue to evolve and adjust as more studies are completed and findings are publicized. Help your student make their vaccine decision with facts from reputable sources and advice from trusted medical professionals.

Autumn Update:

The list of colleges and universities announcing that they will require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus for the Fall 2021 term continues to grow. At the same time, a number of states including Texas have issued executive orders prohibiting this kind of requirement from institutions that receive public funding, so it's likely there will be legal challenges in some places.

Your student's school will keep you informed about their policies. Stay tuned!

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Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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