University vaccine mandates saved lives, money

Colleges and universities that imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in the fall 2021 semester averted 11% of cases and reduced deaths by 5% in the surrounding communities, according to new research. 

Focusing on U.S. counties with at least one four-year college that offers on-campus residential facilities, the researchers found the mandates, on average, resulted in 339 fewer cases and 4.8 fewer deaths per 100,000 residents.

“Given the mandates mostly impacted students who are very unlikely to die from COVID, we argue that virtually all of these saved lives are due to reduction in transmission to other members of the community, ” said Michael Lovenheim, professor in the ILR School and the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and the Donald C. Opatrny ’74 Chair of the Department of Economics.

In the paper, “The Effect of Vaccine Mandates on Disease Spread: Evidence from College COVID-19 Mandates,” Lovenheim and his co-authors studied 269 counties surrounding universities that imposed a mandate and 284 counties surrounding universities that did not.

“Our study shows that vaccine mandates, even in a young population, can be an effective tool towards reducing the disease burden related to COVID,” Lovenheim said. “I think when it comes to public policy we have to find a balance between forcing medical interventions on people versus the public health benefits of doing that. In the case of COVID there are these spillover effects. So when you think of a cost-benefit framework, our research shows that the public health benefits of enforcing mandates are quite large.

”If we didn't find these spillovers, I think it would be harder to justify vaccine mandates because you’re telling adults they have to get a medical intervention that only benefits themselves and the costs are only to them. Whereas here, the costs – getting a vaccine – flow to the individual, but the benefits flow more broadly to society, and that’s where the conditions of government intervention would be potentially beneficial.”

The study has been published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Julie Greco is a senior communications specialist for the ILR School.

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