COVID policies: How 9 universities plan to approach the pandemic this fall
Public health officials worldwide continue to urge vaccinations against COVID-19, as omicron subvariants such BA.5 show “measles-like” spread capabilities and because of their effectiveness in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.
In higher education communities where students have been far less impacted by serious outcomes, debate remains over the necessity of mandates, especially heading into year three of the pandemic. Some institutions have successfully forged ahead with open campuses, including reductions in mask usage and testing, while others have remained more conservative in their approach. Will new variants such as BA.5 and the evasive and highly infectious emerging BA.2.75 affect decisions when gates open this fall?
Perhaps, but even Duke University officials admit they are not concerned about the serious effects of COVID-19, except in those who have comorbidities. Though they are keeping vaccine requirements in place (including one booster shot), they plan on relaxing mask policies in classrooms “when community risk has been reduced to medium or low for two consecutive weeks.”
“Our community has been exceptionally resilient in navigating the worst of the pandemic the last two years,” Duke administrators and health leaders Carol Epling, John Vaughn, Gail Shulby and Cameron Wolfe said in a joint statement. “And while we must be prepared to renew our efforts again if circumstances change, we look forward to moving back into more normal routines this academic year.”
Variants likely will determine that fate. Only five U.S. states currently have positivity rates below 10%, while a half dozen are at an astounding 30% or higher. Hospitalization rates, though lower than in the early days of the pandemic, are still rising in all but six states. But in Durham, N.C., case counts have dropped 18% in the past weeks despite the 18% positivity rate, so for now Duke remains outside the crosshairs of serious pandemic transmission. New combination vaccines promised this fall also might be a factor in how universities think about the future of mandates around COVID.
Just over an hour-plus west of Duke, Wake Forest University is also keeping its vaccine and booster requirement intact for the fall, although officials note that the mood around COVID in 2022 is vastly different from 2020. “Part of the move from pandemic to endemic is recognizing COVID-19, like flu or other seasonal viruses, as part of our lives,” university officials said in a statement. “We believe that these changes address this reality while still leaving us in a strong position to pivot if public health guidance indicates a different approach is necessary.”
Across the country Gonzaga University in Washington, where case counts are down 20% over two weeks, is also planning to continue its vaccination policy this fall. Students face the potential again of not being enrolled without a vaccine or exemption and are being asked to get a booster, though it is not required. While acknowledging the polarizing nature of vaccinations, Gonzaga and institutions in the state remember the early days of COVID, when the spread there was devastating to older populations.
“Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination serves the common good; it is not only important for one’s personal health, but it is also our responsibility to care for the common good of our university and the broader community, getting a vaccine is one way to do so,” Gonzaga officials wrote to students. “We know that the COVID-19 vaccine is a sensitive subject, and we want you to know that we are here for you with resources and support if needed.”
The State University of New York and the University of Maine systems are also continuing their COVID vaccination mandates this fall though not requiring boosters. “Currently improving conditions of the COVID pandemic are encouraging, but we are not out of the woods just yet,” Maine Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “Getting vaccinated and, when eligible, boosted remain the best defenses against the disease.” In New Jersey, there may be a vaccine requirement for all colleges if legislation passes.
Institutions in the state of Ohio, which leans largely conservative politically, are split on their guidance. The University of Cincinnati removed both its vaccine and mask policies this summer, but Ohio University and Ohio State University (which has a 93% vaccination rate) are still requiring students to get vaccinated (not boosters) against COVID-19. However, Ohio State did make masking optional over the summer and also reduced testing. As for the fall, OSU officials have not released plans, but are following Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Department of Health advisories, which are “always subject to change.”
Some institutions continue to be bound by state directives or legislation, such as in Florida and in Virginia, which recently saw several universities, including George Mason, reverse course from mandates to simple encouragement of vaccines.