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Editorial: Looking ahead, Virginia must ramp up its messaging with younger populations
A Vaccine Plateau?

Editorial: Looking ahead, Virginia must ramp up its messaging with younger populations

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States across the U.S. are facing a similar quandary: Could the number of COVID-19 vaccinations plateau before the population reaches herd immunity?

In Virginia, the population of people who have gotten vaccinated — or are in the process of getting there — continues to climb. As of Monday morning, 36.6% of people in the commonwealth (3.1 million) have received at least one dose. That’s almost half of the state’s stated goal of vaccinating at least 75% of people ages 16 and older, as cited in a March Virginia Department of Health (VDH) fact sheet.

The arrival of vaccines and warmer weather make some elements of prepandemic life seem more within reach — like a trip to Richmond International Airport to head out for a vacation. But no matter how old you are, getting vaccinated matters. Without your shot — and continued precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing — your risk of catching COVID-19 is just as high as it was a year ago, when the commonwealth and country were grounded in stay-at-home orders.

Looking ahead, Virginia must ramp up its vaccine messaging toward younger populations. Nationally, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) Vaccine Monitor Dashboard showcases regular polling on “the public’s attitudes and experiences” with vaccines. While older populations appear to have grasped the shots’ importance, younger people might show more uncertainty or aversion.

First, thanks to the vaccine prioritization structure, older populations currently are the most sizable portion of the vaccinated group. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showed that as of Saturday, 78% of people ages 65 and older had at least one dose and 60% fully were vaccinated.

Within the state-level demographic data provided by VDH, we see parallel progress in vaccines protecting older populations in Virginia. Of the 3.1 million people who have gotten at least one shot, roughly 4 in 7 (1.8 million) are age 50 or older. That matters since we have plenty of evidence showing how age can be a factor in the most serious cases of COVID-19, which might lead to hospitalizations and deaths.

Moreover, better supply is creating more access for older populations, with expanded walk-in options emerging in recent days. In New Kent County, New Kent High School is serving people ages 50 and older. In the Chickahominy Health District, the Ashland vaccination center has some available days for people ages 60 and older. In Goochland County, the Central High School Cultural and Educational Complex is providing options for people ages 65 and older.

But the coronavirus affects all ages and national trends show that amid new variants, younger, unvaccinated populations also are at risk of getting sick. A Sunday CNN report noted that the seven-day national average is 68,000 daily cases, up 20% from one month ago.

“On the one hand, we have so much reason for optimism and hope, and more Americans are being vaccinated and protected from COVID-19,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said in a Friday briefing. “On the other hand, cases and emergency room visits are up, and as I’ve highlighted through the week, we are seeing these increases in younger adults, most of whom have not yet been vaccinated.”

We want a summer in Virginia where people are visiting beaches, attending festivals and more, without the term “outbreak” or “lockdown” continuing to be part of the equation. While KFF’s polling only is one snapshot, the data suggests that some populations will be harder to persuade than others, and age is a factor.

In the most recent Vaccine Monitor Dashboard, among people 18 to 29, 25% said they would “wait and see.” Another 15% planned to get it “only if required” and 11% said they definitely would not get it. People ages 30 to 49 had similar thoughts: 18% were in the “wait and see” category, 8% were in the “only if required” camp and 18% would “definitely not get the vaccine.”

A great deal of messaging has gone toward the importance of getting vaccinated, and waiting your turn to ensure that priority populations like seniors and essential workers are served. In central Virginia, everyone age 16 and older is eligible and, come next week, the rest of the commonwealth and country will join that group. COVID-19 still is here. What will it take to make sure that younger people are protected, too?

— Chris Gentilviso

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