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In Louisiana, young people can get a COVID vaccine. But does everyone want it?



MONROE, La. – In early January, once vaccines hit pharmacy shelves, seniors in Louisiana were calling up pharmacies to get on waitlists, driving across state lines and waiting on hold for hours to get an appointment.

By early April, when getting a vaccine might be as easy as strolling up and rolling up a sleeve, providers haven’t seen the same banging-down-the-door enthusiasm from young people since the state lifted all requirements nearly two weeks ago.

“The younger crowd isn’t calling us,” said Lisa Carr, co-owner of Carr Drugs in Algiers, one of the first pharmacies to give out vaccines in the state. “I don’t know if they’re going to mass vaccination sites, or if they are waiting for a good reason to have to get the vaccine like a trip or return to college.”

Though younger people are getting the vaccine by the thousands, they’re not showing up in the same numbers as people over 40, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.

In the last week, only an additional 3.8% of 18 to 39-year-olds received the vaccine, compared to about 5% of 40 to 59-year-olds, even though people over 40 are more likely to have a condition that qualified them for the vaccine earlier.

If 18 to 29-year-olds were getting vaccinated at the same rate as 50 to 59-year-olds, an additional 11,236 of them would have had their first shot by now.

A lack of fear of the coronavirus may have lessened young people’s sense of urgency to get the vaccine, experts said.

“One of the big battles we’re dealing with is they don’t perceive themselves at high risk,” said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University. People in their early 20s and younger, especially, have an “invincibility modality that is operating for a lot of them.”

A recent survey on vaccine willingness by the Louisiana Public Health Institute Survey found that hesitancy was highest among adults under 30.

About 77% of Black adults under 30 and 67% of White adults under 30 said they were unwilling or hesitant to get the vaccine. That’s significantly higher than the next age group, which includes adults ages 30 to 44. In that category, 64% of Black adults were unwilling or hesitant and 47% of White adults were as well.

Ki’Amber Whitley, an 18-year-old student at Dillard University, said she’d rather continue to mask and social distance to protect herself.

“I trust my body,” said Whitley. “I haven’t had the flu shot since 2014 and I haven’t been sick since 2014.”

But young people are not invincible against the coronavirus. Across the country, states are seeing a shift in the type of patient showing up to the emergency room with the coronavirus.

“We are seeing these increases in younger adults, most of whom have not been vaccinated,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a call with reporters on Friday.

And though Louisiana is not seeing troubling spikes in cases like some states in the Midwest, hospitals are seeing younger patients.

“We have had in the past month people extremely sick in our hospitals in their 30s and 40s,” said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, an infectious disease specialist at Ochsner Health. “We’ve had at least two teenagers in with COVID.”

Also troubling is the unknown long-term effects of coronavirus infection, sometimes showing up as “long COVID,” a constellation of symptoms that include fatigue, brain fog, heart palpitations and loss of taste and smell.

Some studies suggest the coronavirus may have untold effects on organs like the heart, brain and lungs. A small study on student-athletes with coronavirus showed signs of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart connected to sudden death, in as many as one in five athletes, though later studies have shown a smaller incidence.

“Everyone should be concerned about what we don’t know about what happens in the long term from having the COVID illness,” said Kemmerly. “The options for the long haulers are not very good. We don’t understand it particularly well … It doesn’t seem to correlate with however sick you were with COVID.”

Some young people who have gotten the shot said they were motivated by freedom rather than fear.

“My senior year was ripped away from me,” said Daniel Porea, a 17-year-old at Lusher Charter School who got the first Pfizer dose last week. “If there was anything I could do to remediate and ease the tension, the pain I’ve gone through over the past year because of this virus, I was all for it, so I was all for the vaccine.”

Others are motivated to get vaccinated because they want to protect others.

“I know that if I were to get COVID I’d probably end up OK, but I think it was important to get it because I’ve been worried about how other people are going to respond,” said Sofia Mongillo, a 20-year-old Loyola University student who will get her second Moderna shot next week. “I’ll be fine, but I don’t know how someone else would be.”

Holly Haney, a 20-year-old sophomore at Tulane University, has received her first shot of Pfizer. She said she got vaccinated because her job put her in contact with people more at risk.

“I work at a church so I’m interacting with old people a lot,” she said. “I’d like them not to die.”

Public health experts recognize they will need to pivot outreach to match the shift in motivation. Dr. Jason Halperin, an infectious disease expert at Crescent Care, is working with bars and restaurants like Dragon’s Den and Melba’s Poboys to hold events that will attract young people, incentivizing them with a feel-good social setting after a year of isolation.

Dragon’s Den is offering “shots for shots” — a free shot of liquor for every Johnson & Johnson dose given at an event with DJ RQ Away on Friday night.

Halperin has seen a specific hesitancy in some of his young Black patients who still feel like they should prioritize more vulnerable members of their community, an attitude likely stemming from just weeks earlier when the supply of vaccine did not meet the demand.

“They don’t feel they should take an appointment,” said Halperin. “It’s this consideration that older members of their family should go first.”

People between 18 and 30 make up Louisiana’s largest adult population, making them a crucial group for making it to herd immunity. They’re also the same population visiting bars in large numbers and going to places like sporting events and competitions where the state has seen large outbreaks.

“This is the population we know is having more COVID and bringing it home and potentially getting someone sick, so we really do need to prioritize them,” said Halperin. “This is what gets us back.”