August 1, 2022
Colleges’ vaccine mandates appeared to have a substantial effect on county-level Covid-19 infection and death rates, likely reducing total U.S. deaths from the virus by about 5 percent — or roughly 7,300 lives — in fall 2021.
That’s according to a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Rather than looking just at how a college’s vaccine mandate affected the student body, the study examined how the policy could influence the surrounding community’s health outcomes as a “spillover” effect. Riley K. Acton, an assistant professor of economics at Miami University, in Ohio, and co-author of the paper, said she sees that as a key potential benefit of vaccinating students.
“One of the arguments for vaccinating a younger, generally healthier population would be this idea of protecting the rest of the community by limiting transmission from the college students to other members of the community,” Acton said. “That’s really what we were testing in this paper.”
Counties where students were under vaccine mandates saw dramatically different outcomes. The study indicates that the mandates lowered new Covid-19 cases by 339 cases per 100,000 residents in the surrounding county and decreased new deaths by over 5 out of 100,000 residents.
These numbers are particularly noteworthy because many college vaccine mandates were put in place to manage outbreaks mainly among students and keep classes in person, said Scott A. Imberman, a professor of economics at Michigan State University and another co-author.
“We hope that our work,” Imberman said, “shows the universities their responsibilities to the communities that they live in — to help protect the health and well-being of people outside of the colleges as well.”
Vaccine mandates on college campuses were controversial and heavily politicized when they were first implemented and continue to be challenged in court on the basis of medical and religious freedom. At the start of the period that the study covers, fall 2021, the Covid-19 vaccine still didn’t have full Food and Drug Administration authorization, and some colleges were hesitant to put mandates in place. Miami University, where Acton is a professor, didn’t enact a mandate until the full authorization was granted in August 2021.