US college students with disabilities generallt ill-informed about COVID-19 vaccines

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how educational institutions operate, including changes in the mode of learning and additional safety protocols for students, staff, faculty, and other stakeholders on campus. In addition, the development of COVID-19 vaccines has catalyzed the ability of campuses to re-open their doors to students and faculty.

Although many US institutions are confident about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, many postsecondary students in the 18-24 age group are skeptical about the vaccine.

A poll conducted in late April 2021 showed that vaccine hesitancy is more prevalent in people of color, women, people living in rural areas, and people with disabilities compared to men, White people, and people living in urban areas.

COVID-19 vaccine mandates in higher education institutions disproportionately affect students with disabilities

Higher education institutions in the US have made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for students who want to return to campus for in-person learning. However, students with disabilities (SWDs) may not be willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for many reasons, which could delay or deny SWDs access to higher education.

College SWDs being an extremely marginalized group in higher education institutions in the US, vaccine hesitancy in this group and measures needed to alleviate their concerns and encourage vaccination are crucial subjects of research.

Despite this, whether SWDs realize that the COVID-19 vaccination is free and if that understanding differs by intersectional identities is a poorly researched aspect of COVID-19 vaccines and related communication.

To fill this gap, a research team in the US surveyed 245 college SWDs to understand the knowledge of vaccine costs in these students and if differences in understanding exist between groups. This study set out to answer two questions related to vaccine hesitancy among college SWDs: 1) Do they understand that the COVID-19 vaccine is free? and 2) Does this knowledge of vaccine costs vary by gender, race, or other identities? This study is published on the medRxiv* preprint server while awaiting peer review.

Only less than a fourth of SWDs understood that COVID-19 vaccines are free

The survey results show that white/Caucasian SWDs were most aware (23.6%), while Latinx students were least aware (1.3%) of free COVID-19 vaccines. Moreover, female SWDs were more aware (14.8%) of COVID-19 vaccines being free compared to male SWDs (11.4%), and first-generation SWDs were more aware (15.6%) than non-first generation SWDs (12.2%). Also, full-time students (19%) were more aware of free COVID-19 vaccines than part-time students (8.9%). Overall, only under 25% of SWDs knew that COVID-19 vaccines are free.

Findings have critical implications for vaccine awareness, health communication, and higher education policy

According to the authors, SWDs are most at-risk for the effects of COVID-19 as well as the adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccines. While SWDs may already have some level of vaccine hesitancy, it is made worse by the fact that they believe that these vaccines cost money or are not affordable. Vaccine hesitancy based on cost can be very detrimental to college SWDs and higher education institutions. The findings of this study show that less than 25% of SWDs knew about free COVID-19 vaccines and the awareness was even lower in SWDs from other racial/ethnic backgrounds compared to SWDs from White/Caucasian ethnicities.

Although the US vaccination campaign during the pandemic focused on providing information about COVID-19 vaccines to the public, it was found that the cost of COVID-19 vaccines was not part of these communication campaigns.

Previous studies have shown that raising vaccine awareness through credible medical sources has been instrumental in fighting vaccine hesitancy. It is also essential for this information to be shared consistently and continuously through government officials and CDC and federal government websites using various communication modes, including email, text messaging, social media, and in-person communication.

In order to rectify the informational discrepancy between White/Caucasian SWDs and SWDs of color, both governmental and higher education institutions should work on providing reliable and scientific information on COVID-19 vaccines and their safety, costs, side effects, and effectiveness in preventing disease. In addition, they can work with community-based organizations and local agencies to assist in improving vaccination as well as information access for SWDs in higher education institutions. Communicating COVID-19 vaccine policies and practices clearly and effectively is crucial in fighting cost-related vaccine hesitancy and enabling college SWDs to continue with their higher education goals.

*Important Notice

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Susha Cheriyedath

Written by

Susha Cheriyedath

Susha has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Chemistry and Master of Science (M.Sc) degree in Biochemistry from the University of Calicut, India. She always had a keen interest in medical and health science. As part of her masters degree, she specialized in Biochemistry, with an emphasis on Microbiology, Physiology, Biotechnology, and Nutrition. In her spare time, she loves to cook up a storm in the kitchen with her super-messy baking experiments.

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