COVID-19 vaccine mandates at colleges were effective in saving lives, especially in colleges that largely comprised low-income and minority communities, researchers say.
Vaccine mandates on college campuses reduced total U.S. COVID-19 deaths last fall by approximately 5%, according to a working paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In total, the authors estimated that the mandates reduced new coronavirus cases by 339 per 100,000 county residents and prevented 5.4 deaths for every 100,000 residents. They estimated that the “value of lives saved” by the mandates was between $9.7 million and $27.4 million per 100,000 residents.
For the fall semester of 2021, 668 two-year and four-year institutions mandated that their students and in some cases their faculties be vaccinated against coronavirus. The authors studied the data on vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and analyzed the colleges’ testing policies as well as county-level medical data such as COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations and deaths.
The researchers wrote: “99.5% of COVID deaths are among those over the age of 24. The reductions in deaths we document hence come almost entirely from the non-college population.” In other words, the researchers found that the schools’ vaccine and mask mandates had significant spillover effects on communities beyond the campus.
“‘The reductions in deaths we document hence come almost entirely from the non-college population.’”
Two groups — college towns and universities that served a large population that was less likely to get vaccinated had it not been for college vaccine mandates — saw the most impact, said Mike Lovenheim, one of the authors of the paper and a professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University.
The universities in the latter group typically serve more lower-income students and students from minority groups, Lovenheim said.
Lower-income communities and minority groups experienced disproportionate levels of COVID infections. They were more likely to work in service-industry jobs where they came into contact with co-workers and members of the public.
Some were not able to get vaccines due to lack of flexibility in their work schedules or because they were taking care of other family members. In mid-June 2021, more than half of the unvaccinated Americans had an annual income that was lower than $50,000.
Lovenheim said people should not necessarily apply his findings to the BA.5 variant. Vaccines were more effective in preventing cases in the early days of the pandemic, he said, although there are also more treatments — like Paxlovid — against coronavirus in 2022.
BA.5 is the most dominant strain of the coronavirus, and also the most transmissible one so far, experts said. The variant is driving a surge in U.S. cases, averaging 127,000 daily.
“When you look at the data, it’s really overwhelming that the mortality rates, fortunately, have declined,” Lovenheim said. “A lot of that’s due to the vaccines, but a lot of it was due to these other treatments like Paxlovid that we have that weren’t widely available in the period we studied.”