As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, colleges and universities across the nation weigh the decision of whether to require students to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall.
Duke University was among around a dozen schools nationwide to announce relatively early that they will require vaccination for the fall semester. However, more schools are following suit, and others are considering a vaccine mandate as well.
“Looking ahead, we know that widespread vaccination will be the only way to facilitate a return to normal and robust campus life,” Duke President Vincent E. Price said in a notice sent to students, faculty and staff announcing the school’s decision to require proof of vaccination.
According to the announcement, the policy applies to all undergraduate, graduate and professional students planning to be on campus for any period of time, aside from those with documented medical or religious exemptions.
North Carolina state law requires college students at both public and private institutions to receive vaccinations for several diseases — diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and varicella — before reporting to campus. Some schools also have requirements for flu vaccines each year.
Duke was among the first institutions in the state to enact a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Many schools holding off
The UNC System, which operates 16 public universities across the state, has hosted inoculation clinics on its campuses, vaccinating more than 62,000 people, so far. But the system has held off on declaring an official requirement.
“The UNC System strongly recommends the vaccine for students but is not requiring it,” the system said via a statement from UNC Vice President of Communications Jane Stancill. “We urge our students and all North Carolinians to be vaccinated at the earliest opportunity,”
Larger private institutions have also been weighing the options for fall but are generally holding off on making a final decision. In the case of Wake Forest, the position was uncertain a few weeks ago, but that changed in late April.
“We are working on plans for the fall semester now,” Cheryl Walker, acting executive director, news and communications, Wake Forest University, said in mid-April. “While we are encouraging students to get vaccinated, we have not, at this point, made any decisions about requiring a vaccine.”
However, on April 20, Wake Forest released its decision and announced its “intent to require proof of vaccination for all students in the fall” on its website.
Duke’s move to require vaccination has spurred many other higher education institutions across the state to consider enacting similar policies.
“We had our health and safety task force meet, and based on Duke, we decided to have a serious conversation about vaccine requirements,” said Jermaine Thomas, director of public safety at Guilford College in Greensboro.
“And because we work so closely with the Guilford County Health Department, we decided to follow their guidelines and not require the vaccine during the emergency use authorization.”
The emergency use authorization issued through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is a mechanism to facilitate the availability and use of medical tools such as vaccines during public health emergencies.
The emergency use authorization fast-tracked the approval and production of COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson for distribution to the public. Because the FDA has only allowed the emergency use of the vaccinations and hasn’t given full approval yet, some schools don’t feel they can legally require students to receive the vaccines.
“We are looking at what we are able to do, and I’m talking to my colleagues at other institutions,” said Paul Perrine, vice president for student life at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa.
“Factors that could play into that definitely include whether the vaccine will be removed from emergency use and officially recommended.”
With the recent recommendation from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA for clinics to pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to a possible link to an increased risk of blood clotting, some still have concerns about the safety of the vaccines.
The UNC System halted its use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in its campus clinics, opting to use the Moderna shot instead.
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is administered through a single dose, the Pfizer and Moderna versions are both given in two doses with weekslong waiting periods between the first and second shots. For some college students attempting to receive their vaccine before leaving campus for the summer break, that can pose an issue since most schools end classes in the first weeks of May.
In lieu of requiring vaccinations, most schools will continue to follow protocols set forth by the CDC to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
“We are planning to have a quarantine isolation facility on campus should we need it and anticipate that, like at other schools, masks would be part of being on campus,” Perrine said.
Some schools will also require COVID testing before returning to campus.
“As we did this year, we anticipate requiring a negative COVID test for students, faculty and staff before the fall semester begins,” said Cory Butzin, marketing communications specialist at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory.
Warren Wilson, along with several other colleges in Western North Carolina, has partnered with the Mountain Area Health Education Center to address COVID-19 on their campuses. A group of presidents and chancellors from participating institutions meets weekly with a MAHEC representative, and Warren Wilson has implemented a student health ambassador initiative on campus.
“The student health ambassador program has been very successful on our campus,” Perrine said.
“Right now, they’re educating their peers about the vaccine and facilitating vaccine appointments to all students who want it. We have an exciting group that has been focused on those things, and it’s something we are planning on continuing. We’ve had some great student involvement in health advocacy.”
And even if they don’t require COVID vaccinations for the fall semester, most schools say they plan to continue to urge their students to get inoculated and will provide opportunities on or near campus to make it easier for students to get their shots.
“No matter where we land on (the vaccine requirement) decision, we do plan to continue to have vaccine clinics,” Thomas of Guilford College said. “It’s going to be a very collaborative decision, and we’re going to make it in the most prudent way possible to make sure everyone is safe and healthy.”