Could ‘dissent’ option stall student vaccinations at Louisiana universities?

LSU has an answer that could further protect its community from those who opt out of the requirement.
By: | August 24, 2021
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

One of the unique loopholes in Louisiana’s laws on vaccination for colleges, universities and K-12 schools is that students and parents have the right to provide “written dissent” to opt out of the requirement. Fourteen other states have similar policies.

That is true for measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, influenza … and yes, likely COVID-19, although it has yet to be referenced in state guidelines.

So when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer/BioNTech on Monday and reports surfaced that the University of Louisiana and Louisiana State University systems had announced vaccine mandates, there was a slight pause from officials. However, plans seem to shaping up … and those who do opt out will face an additional requirement, at least at LSU.

“Yesterday the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for anyone 16 and over, paving the way for LSU to require vaccines for students, faculty and staff,” President William Tate IV said Tuesday in a statement to the LSU community. “Louisiana law allows for students to opt out of vaccinations, and those who choose this route will be required to be tested for COVID on a regular basis. As an epidemiologist, I know that vaccination is the way out of this pandemic, and I’m grateful to everyone who has already been vaccinated for helping us move in that direction.”

LSU says students must submit proof of their first vaccination or decide in writing that they are not adhering to the guidance by Sept. 10. They will then have until Oct. 15 to submit their completed vaccine forms. The university also said it will require proof of negative COVID tests for its football games at Tiger Stadium this season.

None of the other state universities—from Louisiana Tech to Grambling State—has publicly released full plans other than to say they are pushing ahead with requirements. However, Louisiana-Lafayette’s president did send this message to his community: “The FDA’s approval has long been the standard for pharmaceutical safety and efficacy, and I hope the agency’s endorsement will reassure those of you who have yet to be vaccinated to do so,” Dr. Joseph Savoie wrote.

Why is all of this so significant? Because the state, one of the hardest hit by COVID over the past month, has seen a slight drop in cases over the past 14 days. That has been helped by a statewide mandate on masks indoors that has been installed by institutions. Any momentum would be positive. Any excuse to opt out now might slow it down, especially as campuses across the state are fully reopening for learning.  University of Louisiana officials say any of three vaccines will count toward the requirement.

Aside from the dissent opt-out, one of the other considerations for institutions is medical exemptions. The state of Louisiana’s law on vaccinations provides that a “written statement from a physician stating that the procedure is contraindicated for medical reasons” can be used by students to avoid the requirement.

One of the sections in the law that could be in play—whether unvaccinated students during a pandemic can be prevented from coming onto campus—is this, although those decisions likely would be in the hands of public health officials:

Section F of RS 17:170 reads: “In the event of an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease at the location of an educational institution or facility … the administrators of that institution or facility are empowered, upon the recommendation of the office of public health, to exclude from attendance unimmunized students and clients until the appropriate disease incubation period has expired or the unimmunized person presents evidence of immunization.”

State-by-state requirements change

In other news related to COVID-19 and the recent Pfizer approval:

Florida: The University of South Florida is hoping a $3,000 grant from the American College Health Association will lead to more acceptance of the vaccine on its campus. Less than 50% of those ages 12-29 across the state have received COVID-19 preventive doses. “There are really two massive barriers we need to break down with college students,” said Victoria Beltran, assistant director of prevention services at USF’s Wellness Center. “First, the misinformation on social media and in different media outlets is really staggering and we really need to get the right information on the right channels to the right people. The second issue is, through most of the pandemic, the message was that older adults were the group most at risk, so it was easy for young people to think they didn’t have to worry. The delta variant has shifted that, and young people are getting sick and at great risk, but their behavior hasn’t changed.” Florida International University and Florida A&M University also have received grants, which are aimed at overcoming stigmas around vaccination.

Georgia: According to a report from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, two lecturers at the University of North Georgia on Monday quit their positions over a lack of safety measures at the university related to COVID-19. The AJC said the instructors taught five courses apiece, and UNG provided subs to cover them. Though the university is encouraging its populations to be vaccinated and “follow best practices recommended by state public health officials and the CDC,” it also says “it plans to have a typical semester this fall with in-person instruction and robust on-campus student activities.” The university and many others are hamstrung by the state’s ban on vaccine and mask passports. The University of North Georgia has had 73 COVID positive cases on its campuses in the past seven days, including six among employees at its Gainesville campus alone.

Kentucky: Bellarmine University became one of the few in the state to impose a vaccine mandate. All staff, faculty and students must be inoculated within the next 45 days to come to campus. “As a matter of public health, we must each do our part to ensure that we are not infecting ourselves or other members of our campus community,” President Dr. Susan Donovan said in a statement.

Michigan: Oakland University has updated its vaccination policy to now require that all of those who are coming to campus provide proof of completed doses. Previously, it had mandated that only residents be vaccinated.

New Jersey: The County College of Morris is putting the majority of its courses online for the first seven weeks as it tries to get all of its staff, faculty and student vaccinated under a new mandate. Classes will resume in person on Oct. 27, but the college says making the switch is not a problem: “Faculty have been instructing remotely or in an online format, except for a small number of classes that require in-person instruction, since the start of the pandemic,” officials said … Because of the Pfizer approval, Rowan University has canceled its addendum to its vaccine mandate that allowed students to petition to not get vaccinated for personal reasons.

North Carolina: Duke University, which has had a vaccine requirement in place for months, reports that more than 90% of its students and employees, including faculty, have completed COVID-19 dosing schedules.

Virginia: After the Pfizer announcement, the University of Richmond updated its guidance to state that students must have their first dose of one of three vaccines by Sept. 8, even though the other two have not gotten past the emergency use authorization stage. The University of Louisiana is allowing for students to use any one of the three too to meet the requirement.  And Richmond is already looking beyond the current mandate. “We expect that additional guidance regarding booster shots for others will be forthcoming, and we will share that information once it becomes available,” said Executive Vice President and COO David Hale. “We remain confident that, coupled with our many other mitigation strategies, the COVID-19 vaccines are an effective and critical tool to combat COVID-19 and help us have another successful year of in-person, residential education.”

Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin-Madison, which like many universities is facing a housing conundrum because of a larger incoming freshman class, is getting backlash from residents with children—especially graduate and post-doctoral students —in its university-owned housing apartments that have been designated for students who have gotten COVID-19 or been exposed to it. The Wisconsin State Journal notes that although the 30 apartments in Eagle Heights have separate entrances and don’t have shared hallways, occupants are still concerned about potential transmission. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the university has approximately 800 fewer spaces dedicated this fall to those COVID-19 contacts. The university is not requiring vaccines this fall.