Pfizer approved: State universities react, start to install COVID-19 mandates

SUNY officially signs on; LSU, University of Minnesota among those that will impose new requirements.
By: | August 23, 2021
Getty Images, Andriy OnufriyenkoGetty Images, Andriy Onufriyenko

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was granted full approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on Monday, which is already setting off a chain reaction among colleges and universities to impose mandates.

One of the most prominent to be impacted and the first to implement the requirement was the State University of New York system, which has nearly 400,000 students and more than 85,000 faculty members spread across its 64 campuses.

“With the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer COVID vaccine today, the state mandated directive for all students to be vaccinated is now in place for all SUNY campuses,” said Holly Liapis, SUNY Spokesperson and Mike Lisi, United University Professions Spokesperson. “Pursuant to SUNY policy, there is an up to 35-day grace period to allow students to provide proof of vaccination or submit a request for a medical or religious exemption for campus review.

“As has been the case from the very start, we are confident our students will continue to do the right thing to protect themselves, their families, and their campus community. We urge faculty and staff to continue to be vaccinated as well. We welcome the FDA approval and are now yet another step closer to beating this virus and ensuring our campuses provide a safe learning environment for all our students.”

With the approval of the vaccine—now called Comirnaty for those 16 and older after a monthslong trial—others including the City University of New York system and several other prominent institutions such as Louisiana State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Memphis, Washington State University and Colorado State University, are all expected to sign on with mandates after consultation with their Boards of Trustees and state officials.

LSU’s president, William Tate IV, was one of the first to react to the news that the vaccine had surpassed emergency use authorization. LSU had imposed a requirement based on that status changing on Aug. 6

“I’m really excited,” Tate said in a news conference Monday. “I understand the FDA has approved one of them today. We’re in good stead with that. Once any one of the [vaccines] were FDA approved, we would mandate student vaccinations here at LSU. In essence that has happened today. There will be a more formal announcement tomorrow reinforcing that. … We’re going to talk to our students today about taking the vaccine.

The timing isn’t spectacular as most institutions have either welcomed students onto campus or are doing so this week and next. The two-dose Pfizer schedule must be done three weeks apart for those who have not received it. The Nevada System of Higher Education, for example, just approved the vaccines for its universities, but it can’t take effect until Nov. 1 for the spring semester.

Still, the news on Pfizer is welcome given the surge in the more transmissible and more potent delta variant. More than 700 colleges and universities already have mandates in place—and they have seen exceptional vaccination numbers, some as high as 90% of their populations.

Washington State University officials have not officially implemented their mandate yet but told their students they must be vaccinated within 45 days of FDA approval – and will not allow personal or philosophical reasons for opting out – or will face these potential penalties:

“If you do not complete these steps, it may impact your ability to participate in campus events and you will need to wear a mask while on campus,” they wrote. “You will not be able to register for spring classes, and a hold will be placed on your student account. The university may impose further restrictions in the interest of maintaining public health, until you have complied with the vaccine requirement.”

The University of Minnesota is telling students they will receive an email soon with instructions on complying with the requirement.

Thousands of other institutions do not have mandates, and there has been a struggle in some states to get the 18-to-24-year-old population vaccinated. There have been further complexities presented by governors in states such as Florida and Texas that have banned vaccine mandates. Will they perhaps lift those bans or be forced to do so now that one has received FDA approval? Or will institutions that were reluctant to challenge them before do so now? Will that also prompt previously reluctant individuals to receive doses regardless of their institution’s stance?


More from UB: State-by-state, colleges requiring COVID-19 vaccination


Earlier this week, the University of Virginia disenrolled 238 students for not getting vaccinated. Other institutions could look to impose sanctions. Hundreds of colleges and universities, in an effort to prevent spread and especially those without vaccine mandates, have imposed mask mandates, at least temporarily.

Reaction came swiftly in higher education, and at least one organization, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, lauded the efforts of all those involved:

“By granting full approval, the FDA is once again reaffirming the safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” said Dr. Robert Cain, President and CEO. “This is far and away the most effective tool we have to help contain the virus and to prevent serious and life-threatening illness. For more than a year, frontline healthcare workers have taken on overwhelming caseloads and routinely work 24-hour shifts. Medical researchers, scientists and many others worked overtime and across company lines to create and produce multiple lifesaving vaccines. And we have witnessed medical and other health professions students volunteer by the thousands to work at local clinics to help treat and vaccinate patients. We hope today’s decision will spur those who were hesitant and waiting for full approval to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

This story will be updated as news develops