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Opinion | Want to slow Michigan’s COVID surge? Vaccinate college students

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and state and county health officials should prioritize getting COVID-19 vaccines to college students.

Michigan has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the country (12 percent as of last week) and is currently averaging 4,400 new cases per day.

Related: Michigan has highest positive rate in nation

Brendan Cantwell, Matthew Johnson
Brendan Cantwell is an associate professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University. Matthew Johnson is an associate professor of educational leadership at Central Michigan University. (Courtesy photos)

Younger adults, including college students, have the highest infection rate. With warmer weather and the allure of travel despite many colleges canceling spring break, college students will spend more time together and continue to spread the virus.

Younger people are less likely to become very ill or die, but hospitalizations are on the rise, and the pandemic won't end until transmission does. College students are spreading COVID-19, so now is the time to respond by inoculating them. 

New restrictions seem politically infeasible. Legislative Republicans will resist any new public health measures. The best way to stop this wave of infections is through vaccination. Now that those most susceptible to serious complications from the virus have been prioritized and vaccine allotments are increasing, those most prone to spreading COVID-19 need to get the shot now.

Starting April 5, all Michiganders over the age of 16 will be eligible for a vaccine. But eligibility does not guarantee access to the shot. The mass vaccination site at Ford Field is far away from many college students in the state. Local appointments through country health offices or pharmacies are difficult to snag and will be increasingly so once everyone 16+ is eligible.

The best way to reach college students is by administering the vaccine where they are, on the campuses of Michigan's universities and community colleges.

Appeals to personal responsibility are good and well, but the fact is many students will not get vaccinated unless we make it convenient for them. It might not be "right," but we think public health and containing spread matters more than the usual hand-wringing that college students should make better choices.

Our suggestion is not unprecedented. Ohio officials are now prioritizing college students for the vaccine to slow the spread of COVID. Additional doses of the one-shot, easier to store and transport Johnson & Johnson vaccine are on the way. As hard as it is for Michiganders to say it, we should follow Ohio's lead and give students the shot.

Several states put higher education in high-priority groups. Michigan did not. Prioritizing K-12 teachers over college students and professors made sense. Opening the state's schools was a top priority. That's mostly done, so let's address the current problem and send the vaccine to where the spread is proliferating.

The best way to get that done might be in giving students jabs on campus where it’s most convenient for them before the semester ends in a few short weeks.

We should give it the old college try.

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