The coronavirus pandemic is waning in the United States, as almost 70 percent of adults have received at least one shot of a vaccine. Yet the pace of vaccinations is winding down, and a more transmissible variant of the virus—Delta—has become the dominant strain. In some parts of the country, the number of new cases is rising among unvaccinated people.
Getting a vast swath of people in the United States and abroad vaccinated is the most effective way of thwarting the resurgence of the current pandemic and stopping future ones. President Joe Biden included $15 billion to support vaccine manufacturing and distribution, among other related efforts, in his signature American Rescue Plan that passed Congress in March 2021. His proposed American Jobs Plan includes $30 billion to help speed up the development of new vaccines in the event of future pandemics.
Getting inoculated should be considered an investment not only in society’s health but also in the nation’s ongoing economic recovery efforts. The economic benefits of vaccination can come in a number of forms, with vaccinated people breathing literal and figurative sighs of relief as their finances improve. The data summarized in this column illustrate the many ways in which vaccinations can help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting vaccinated can help improve people’s health and well-being
Federal survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics show that getting vaccinated is correlated with immediate improvements in well-being. After being vaccinated, people may feel less stress—defined by the author as feeling anxious, worried, down, or uninterested most or all of the time. Less stress can reduce the possibility of developing physical health problems such as high blood pressure. Better health also lowers health care costs. Moreover, less stressed people tend to be better at planning for their future, including saving money and looking for new jobs.
Establishing causality between vaccinations and stress is difficult, but different data cuts suggest that higher vaccination levels may result in less stress, among other benefits. According to the federal survey, conducted from January 2021 to May 2021, 30 percent of people who had at least one vaccine shot reported being stressed, compared with 43.2 percent of people who were not vaccinated. This correlation is not an artifact of income, race, ethnicity, or age. In all subpopulations across the United States, people who were vaccinated felt less stress. And according to the author’s analysis of Census Bureau data, on average, over all two-week periods from January to May, the share of people who were stressed declined in states that experienced more rapid rises in vaccination rates. (see Figure 1)
Moreover, the mental health improvements are greater when the increase in vaccination rates is higher. The author’s analysis groups states’ vaccination rates in increments of 10 percentage points: 0 percent to 10 percent, 10 percent to 20 percent, 20 percent to 30 percent, and so on. Figure 1 organizes states in four groups—0, 1, 2, and 3—depending on how much of an average increase they saw in their vaccination rate over all two-week periods from January 2021 to May 2021. For example, if a state’s vaccination rate moved from somewhere in the range of 0 percent to 10 percent to somewhere in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent, or from somewhere in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent to somewhere in the range of 20 percent to 30 percent, and so on, the author included it in group 1. If a state moved from 0 percent to 10 percent to somewhere in the range of 20 percent to 30 percent, for instance, the author included it in group 2. If a state experienced no increase, the author included it in group 0.
If a state’s vaccination rate did not change across all two-week periods from January to May, its share of population that was stressed most or all of the time improved by an average of 0.8 percentage points, likely reflecting in part a slowly improving economy and abating pandemic; essentially, this is a baseline measure of how things would have improved without a sharp increase in vaccination rates. But if a state was included in group 1, meaning its vaccination rate jumped one group across all two-week periods from January to May, the share of its population that was stressed fell by an average of 1.3 percentage points. If the vaccination rate jumped by two groups, the share of people who were stressed dropped by an average of 2 percentage points. Finally, if the vaccination rate jumped by three groups, the share of stressed people dropped by 3.8 percentage points, on average. Overall, improvements in mental health were two to five times greater if vaccination rates quickly increased than they were in the baseline case.
Vaccinated people also tend to be more likely to seek necessary health care than people who are not vaccinated. According to the same Census Bureau data, 44.7 percent of unvaccinated people reported not seeking or delaying health care from January 2021 to May 2021. In comparison, only 30.5 percent of vaccinated people avoided or delayed care. As seen in Figure 1, the share of people who skipped or delayed health care dropped precipitously over the course of a month if a state’s vaccination share rose quickly. For example, if a state’s vaccination rate rose by one group—roughly 10 percentage points—the share of people who skipped or delayed health care fell by 1.9 percentage points. But if a state’s vaccination rate rose by two levels—closer to 20 percentage points—the share of people who skipped or delayed health care fell by 8.2 percentage points.
Vaccinations can help people return to the workforce
Another economic benefit of getting vaccinated may be a greater ability to safely return to work. As vaccination rates have increased in the United States, more people have indeed worked. To account for the possible correlation between vaccinations and working, it helps to first consider data for just one month. That way, the data are not skewed by the overall improvements in the labor market. To do so, though, requires grouping states by vaccination rates to ensure sufficiently large sample sizes. Vaccination rates showed a relatively high dispersion across states in March 2021, which makes it a good illustrative month for this analysis. In March, 52.4 percent of people in states that had vaccinated from 10 percent to 30 percent of the adult population were working. In states that had vaccinated from 30 percent to 50 percent of the adult population, 58.1 percent of people were working.
Moreover, when vaccination rates increased, the share of people working also rose. For example, if the vaccination rate grouping in a state remained the same, the share of people working essentially remained unchanged. (see Figure 1) But if the vaccination grouping increased by one level from January to March, the share of people working grew by an average of 0.4 percentage points. Faster increases in vaccination rates are correlated with larger increases in the share of people working, relative to no changes in vaccination rate groupings. Undoubtedly, higher vaccination rates increased the physical safety of many workers, which likely aided their ability to return to and find work and, thus, contribute to the labor market recovery.
After being vaccinated, people are more likely to plan for their futures
The economy saw other spillover benefits from higher vaccination rates. People who received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine from January 2021 to May 2021 were more likely to take trips to the store and less likely to cancel or scale down plans for postsecondary education. According to the Census Bureau survey, 31 percent of unvaccinated people who had postsecondary education plans decided to cancel them, while only 18.2 percent of vaccinated people did the same. As shown in Figure 1, the data show sharp drops in people deciding to cancel their postsecondary education plans, if they had some, when vaccination rates increased. In states where vaccination rates rose by one level—about 10 percentage points—the share of people who canceled postsecondary education plans dropped 8.3 percentage points. In states where vaccination rates rose by two levels, the share of people who canceled education plans dropped 10.6 percentage points. These results suggest that vaccinations make it easier for people to return to their prepandemic lives and pursue their plans for the future. The data likely also illustrate how people who are able to return to their lives spend more money, laying the groundwork for faster growth in the future and further aiding the economic recovery.
Getting vaccinated against the coronavirus provides immediate and measurable health benefits. It is also a critical component of the United States’ economic recovery. More widespread vaccinations not only keep people healthier, but they also lower health care costs, make it easier for people to return to work, and increase overall economic activity. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels must redouble their efforts to increase vaccination rates in order to secure these benefits and build on past successes.
Christian E. Weller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a professor of public policy at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
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