Like many other Americans, I’ve spent the past year masked and distanced from those I love. It has been hard, painful, and an experience I do not wish to repeat. However, for me, and nearly 50 percent of other Americans who have gotten at least their first vaccine dose, the COVID-19 vaccine has brought both hope and a sense of safety.
Getting the vaccine meant I could sleep a little easier at night, as I’m a high-risk individual. With a lung and autoimmune condition, I was vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19. With lots of precautions and the help of the COVID-19 vaccine, I have not contracted COVID—but I got lucky. Millions of Americans were not.
One in four Americans has a disability of some sort. Many of these individuals are also at higher risk for COVID-19. In fact, four in every 10 adults—37.6 percent of the adult U.S. population—are at high risk for a serious case of COVID-19. This includes the college-age population.
For those of us who are vulnerable, the vaccine is our biggest hope for a return to normal life—but only if a large percentage of the population gets it as well. That’s why I’m glad the University of Chicago decided to enact a mandatory vaccination policy. However, some at the University are not so happy. In a recent Chicago Thinker opinion piece by Evita Duffy, for instance, she stated that vaccination requirements for the University are “absurd,” in part because of the low risk posed to the student population.
The article states in attempting to justify why “students are not at risk”:
Study after study has shown that college-aged students are not at risk of dying from COVID…. The minute percentage of students who are at risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID have comorbidities, which can be lifestyle-related, such as obesity and type two diabetes. Yet, instead of promoting health and fitness, universities across the country have foolishly made working out as difficult as possible.
Unfortunately, many individuals with chronic illnesses at the University do not fit in Duffy’s classification of a typical college-age student. Compounding this, Duffy’s emphasis on “lifestyle-related” comorbidities vastly oversimplifies and vilifies the conditions it mentions. Moreover, the vague idea of promoting “health and fitness,” as the article suggests, won’t help me or other students with vulnerabilities to COVID-19. While many people have suggested I try yoga for my autoimmune disease, I highly doubt it’ll make me less vulnerable to COVID. Plus, many individuals who have physical disabilities cannot engage in traditional physical fitness activities.
When people at high risk of severe disease contract COVID, their symptoms are not minimal, even if they are young. In addition, COVID is easily transmissible from young, healthy, college-age students, and spread to the most vulnerable. With over half a million people dead in this country from the virus, it should be obvious that not everyone is lucky enough to have youth or a robust immune system on their side.
Students at UChicago with disabilities and chronic conditions are not expendable. We deserve the full wealth of the college experience––as does every other student. Yet we cannot do so without the help and cooperation of others. Neither can our vulnerabilities be solved with a prescription of health promotion and exercise.
Instead of being callous, cruel, and downright misinformed about the lives of college students with chronic conditions, I’d suggest taking a minute to look at the real vulnerability many students face. Invisible illnesses and disabilities cannot be seen, but they are a real presence on all college campuses.
While Duffy has cast doubt on the safety of the vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccines are proving to be safe and effective. You can access ingredients in the vaccines online, and experts from the medical field have spoken at great length about the safety and process of the vaccine development. In response to worries that the vaccine was rushed, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “The speed was not at all at the sacrifice of safety. The speed was the reflection of extraordinary advances in the science of vaccine platform technology.”
I realize this article may not convince everyone to run out and get the vaccine. All I’d like you to do is take a minute and put yourself in the shoes of someone for whom COVID-19 could be a very serious disease. Empathy is a powerful force, and we’ll need it to get through this pandemic and come out the other side together. Instead of ignoring 37.6 percent of Americans, including many students on the UChicago campus, think about the impact of your assumptions on the health of your friends, family, and neighbors.
Julianna Rossi is a third-year in the College.