Survey highlights divide in vaccine attitudes

The survey found that 85% of college students were vaccinated with at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. (Sarah Cortina | Daily Trojan)

A national survey of 1,790 college students was conducted over the summer on behalf of the American College Health Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finding that while 85% of surveyed students were vaccinated with at least one dose — an even higher proportion than the general American population — attitudes on the coronavirus and other vaccinations remain deeply divided. Vaccine mandates and awareness of college student health centers strongly correlated with higher vaccine uptake, but Republican and conservative students were less likely to be vaccinated than their liberal and progressive peers.

Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman, a co-chair of ACHA’s Campus COVID-19 Vaccination and Mitigation (CoVAC) Initiative Advisory Committee, said in a briefing on Wednesday with the Daily Trojan that the politicization of vaccines remains “challenging” for public health.

“Some of the strategies that we know can work are really individual, one-on-one conversations that are in a non-confrontational way,” Van Orman said on encouraging unvaccinated students to get vaccinated. “We know that finding people who might be aligned with that person — [who] might be from the same community, from the same political orientation, who are close to them … hearing the message from what we think of as a trusted messenger is really the only way to move those individuals.”

The survey’s results are, by nature, not comprehensively representative of the USC population. For example, the survey was unable to provide sufficient analysis for respondents of ethnic or racial backgrounds — for example, of Asian descent — which were not statistically significant; meanwhile, the USC Office of Institutional Research says 19% of the student population is Asian. Van Orman said that the Trojan Pandemic Research Initiative, which focused on the USC population, revealed “extremely high vaccination rates” of 98% for  students, staff, and faculty, as well as a generally greater willingness to adhere to relevant policies. 

“We saw people that [said], ‘Well, maybe the policies are annoying me, and I don’t like the things we have to do, but I believe I’m protected,’” Van Orman said. “With our students, faculty and staff, [there was] this sense of, ‘We’re in it together. We’re doing this for our community.’”

Van Orman expressed concern that the politicization of vaccines may “spill over into other life-saving vaccines.” A working paper published in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that university vaccine mandates in fall 2021 — measures which were politically controversial — “saved approximately 7,300 lives, reducing deaths from COVID-19 by about 5%.” 

“As public health [workers], as individuals — we have to depoliticize vaccination,” Van Orman said. “We have to depoliticize public health.”

A total of 139 coronavirus cases, including self-reported positive tests and tests taken at Student Health, were reported for the week of Sept. 11 — a 37% decrease from the 219 cases reported the week before. Van Orman said trends at the University remain consistent with those of Los Angeles County.

Updated influenza vaccines and bivalent coronavirus boosters were both made available beginning Sept. 12, administered via walk-ups at the Engemann Center or by appointment. Student Health will also hold flu vaccination events at the weekly Trojan Farmers Market, beginning next Wednesday and ending Nov. 9.

Van Orman said she encourages students to receive both vaccines at once, noting that doing so would save time and that side effects after vaccination, while variable, are generally not additive.

“We call it the ‘twin jab,’ and I think it’s a convenient way for people to just get them all done,” Van Orman said. “People do sometimes feel mild flu-like symptoms after vaccination; that’s normal, that’s your normal immune response … If you get in both at once, the response is still good, and then you can minimize the number of days you might be feeling some of those vaccine side effects.”

Van Orman said that while data collected so far on reception of either vaccine is limited, an estimated 500 influenza vaccines were administered last week, and   Student Health aims to administer 1,000 this week. Exact reports will begin in early October. 

Student Health will also host an inaugural Sex Week Oct. 17-23, an initiative sponsored by the Graduate and Undergraduate Student Governments, as well as Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, aiming to promote sexual and reproductive health on campus. Van Orman said that while many events have yet to be added to the calendar, they will center on providing medical information including sexually transmitted infection testing and contraception — or sex-positive topics including positive, healthy sexuality and communication in relationships.