College students are getting COVID-19 vaccines before older adults with greater health risks

Some students feel conflicted over vaccinations.

Vaccine eligibility has been a contested issue in recent months

With the California COVID-19 vaccine rollout nearing full bore, more young, healthy people find themselves signing up for shots while many at higher risk still await their turn.

“I got vaccinated last week,” said Emma Cockerell, an economics and maths student. Cockerell is the managing editor of the student-run publication US-China Today, a position that granted her vaccine eligibility as an employee of the university.

Following state guidelines, USC announced March 1 that all university employees are eligible for vaccination. For the 2020-2021 academic year, USC has 4,817 students employed by the school. Within the USC community alone, then, nearly 5,000 vaccines will go to those under the age of 24 — a demographic considered low-risk.

“I was definitely a little conflicted about getting the vaccine,” said Cockerell. “I’m not truly an ‘educator’ in the traditional sense, but USC classifies me as one since I’m a student worker. So that was a bit dubious, but overall I am grateful I had the opportunity to get the vaccine so early.”

Granting vaccine eligibility to those working in education sectors has been a contested issue in recent months, as many of those eligible remain years or even decades younger than those in age groups that are at the highest risk for more severe cases of COVID-19.

Some are weighing whether it would be best to administer doses either based on the impact on certain populations — by pre-existing conditions, age or demographic — or by the likelihood of being infected.

“Right now, educators, which includes most people who work at USC, are eligible for vaccination,” said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, USC’s chief health officer, at a news briefing. “The important thing is that vaccinations are flowing. We continue to encourage folks to get the vaccine wherever they can.”

While doling out vaccines with an emphasis on speed and total number of vaccinations could lead to achieving herd immunity sooner, this tactic leaves health equity concerns unaddressed — some college students are becoming eligible for vaccines before their own parents.

Many have expressed frustration at the way the rollout has progressed. L.A. County resident Katie Amanek, 36, has two pre-existing health conditions — asthma, a high-risk condition for COVID-19, and Marfan syndrome, a heart condition — though she has yet to become eligible for her shot.

“It’s hard knowing I’m at a higher risk than a healthy 20-year-old with no pre-existing conditions,” said Amanek. “I’ve literally been home for a year, I’ve done everything I can to try and stay safe, and then there’s young people getting vaccines who haven’t been as careful as me.”

Since the pandemic set in, Amanek’s relationships have suffered as she hasn’t socialized in person, and she has not seen her family since Christmas 2019. She maintains extra caution, ordering grocery deliveries and having friends run errands for her. The anticipation of getting the vaccine has left her exasperated and wondering when she will get her turn like college student workers.

“It’s an added level of frustration on an already frustrating year,” said Amanek. “My condition isn’t considered as serious as other heart conditions so I’ll be one of the last groups. I don’t think of myself as more deserving than anyone else, and of course I want everyone vaccinated, but the truth of it is I’m at a greater risk than a lot of people getting vaccines today.”

As of March 9, the current age-group eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine remains at 65 and older in L.A. County, raising questions about the swaths of healthy, able-bodied 20-somethings rolling their sleeves up for shots before more at-risk populations can even get in line.

At the same time, however, more and more people of all ages are receiving shots every day in California. While many take exception to the finer details of this, the sentiment seems at least pointed in the right direction. More vaccinations, for people of any age, means less viral transmissions and less hospitalizations.

“It certainly presents a problem that is a bit morally ambiguous, said Adam Dessouky, an economics student at USC who received his shot on March 5. “But at this point if the vaccine’s being offered and if they may expire, it seems better for me to receive it than have it go to waste.” Dessouky, like Cockerell, is generally healthy. He works as a research assistant in the Center for Economic and Social Research on campus.

“I have faith in those who are directing the rollout and determining who is eligible to receive the vaccine,” said Dessouky.

There is little consensus among experts about who should get the vaccine first. While some support administering vaccines based on occupation or demographic, others vie for vaccinating as many people as possible, as fast as possible.

“At this point, the idea is to keep people safe and out of hospitals,” said Dr. Tasha Dixon in an interview with USC Annenberg’s Dímelo. Dixon, who is a Los Angeles COVID spokesperson and clinical assistant professor at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, urged everyone to get vaccinated. “Go when you have the chance, when you have the option to. Get your shots.”

It is difficult to say whether vaccine priorities should be arranged based on occupation or not. Variables such as exposures to large groups or extended time in public places can be hard to quantify, and they remain more difficult to measure than age or documented medical ailments.

“There’s not going to be a perfect vaccination plan,” said Dr. Kevin Luo, a pharmacist and postdoctoral fellow in Boston. “If you segment too narrowly, it will just take more and more time to rollout. In every group there’s going to be some people who are more medically at-risk than others that are being left out.”

Despite the frustration, medical experts widely encourage anyone eligible to get the vaccine as soon as possible to speed up the potential for herd immunity.

For Amanek, when the time does eventually arrive for her to get her shot, she will be ready. Receiving the vaccine would allow old routines to slowly trickle back into day to day life.

“I’d be able to get groceries, I won’t have to ask a friend to go to the store for me,” said Amanek. “I’d still be careful and social distance, but I’d be able to see my parents for the first time in a year. I’d be able to see my 5-year-old niece. The vaccine really would be huge for me.”

This story has been updated with additional context.