The American College Health Association (ACHA) on Thursday recommended that higher education institutions mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all students entering and returning to campuses in the fall.
But the ACHA did qualify its statement by adding this tagline: “where state law and available resources allow.”
Still, the endorsement is significant from the organization that represents more than 1,000 colleges and universities. It cited the significant effects the pandemic has had on all campus populations in its guidance to institution leaders.
“There have been enormous impacts on our college communities, including economic, academic, social, physical, and mental health consequences for students, faculty, and staff,” the AHCA said in its announcement. “Comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination is the most effective way for institutions of higher education to return to a safe, robust on-campus experience for students.”
More than 180 colleges and universities have said they would require students to have proof of vaccines for the next academic year, including several major state university systems. However, a few of them, including the University of California, California State University and the Colorado State University systems have qualified those mandates by requiring full FDA approval of one of the vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.
Thousands of institutions have not made COVID vaccination a requirement – either saying they are awaiting further guidance, trusting their community members will get vaccines on their own or simply refusing to mandate them.
So far, a reported 43% of Americans have received at least their first doses of the vaccines and they have been deemed safe and effective for emergency use authorization, including J&J, which got the green light again this week after it had been paused because of blood clot reports. Many colleges have opened up campuses to dispense vaccines or get students to locations where they are being offered.
Vaccine decisions have been all over the map, likely because of that lack of FDA approval, which could come before schools reopen. For example, some colleges are requiring vaccines for all students, faculty and staff, while some are only requiring them for students.
There are myriad legal considerations for colleges and universities to wade through as they make further decisions, the ACHA said, and colleges should lean on legal teams to further discuss the ramifications of mandating vaccines that are under emergency use authorization.
What does the ACHA say
The AHCA said its vaccine mandate guidance “applies to all students who live on campus and/or participate in on-campus classes, studies, research, or activities.”
It highlighted that other vaccines – such as measles, mumps and rubella – are required for entry, saying, “COVID-19 is a vaccine-preventable illness not unlike those for which vaccines have been required in the past.” But while those have received full FDA approval, the latest three haven’t been.
One of its strongest recommendations was to continue pitching to students the merits of being vaccinated and getting them done before the current semester ends. For those that will require two doses, it is best if they can get their doses from the same provider, since there have been reports of many individuals nationwide not following through on second shots.
“For students, this will help simplify compliance with a fall COVID-19 vaccine requirement,” it said. “In addition, it will positively impact the public health risk of the end-of-semester “mass migration” of students to other cities, states, and countries, leading to potential transmission of the virus from students who may be infected but pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.”
At colleges and universities in locations where there is low confidence or a dismissal of the importance of vaccines, leaders should be vocal not only about the health and safety of protecting themselves and those on campus but also those in the community.
Colleges should ensure their plans to bring back international students to effectively protect their safety and privacy. They should also consider how those who are unvaccinated will mix with others on campus.