Harvard joins other elite institutions in vaccine mandate

The university will require returning students to be vaccinated two weeks before they return in the fall.
By: | May 6, 2021
COVID-19 forces Harvard University to move to online education and ask students to stay home after spring break. (gettyimages.com: marvinh)Gettyimages.com: marvinh

Harvard University is requiring students to get COVID-19 vaccines before returning to campus this fall.

Coupled with a groundswell of support from Ivy League schools, major medical research institutions and a growing number of public universities, Harvard’s mandate is significant, both because of its prestige and because it is one of the last elite colleges to make the decision.

The list now sits at more than 200 – still a far cry from the thousands that have opted to wait to make the call or say they won’t require it. But it now includes these academic and research giants: Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, Emory, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, Tufts, the University of Michigan and Yale. For Harvard, it took a while, but that time helped make for a clear, evidence-based determination.

“Vaccine appointments have become more readily available as the supply of the vaccine has ramped up considerably,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow and other Harvard officials wrote in a letter to their community. “Nationwide supply is expected to outpace demand soon. With millions of doses given and an accumulating body of evidence, we have also gained even greater confidence in the safety and efficacy of the three FDA-authorized vaccines, especially against the common strains of the novel coronavirus.”

One of the drawbacks of waiting to make the decision, however, is that Harvard’s semester closes in the middle of this month. That doesn’t give students much time to get vaccinated before they leave for the summer.

Harvard said it is planning to host a clinic this Friday through its Harvard University Health Services and the Mass General Brigham network, where the Pfizer vaccine will be available. For those who can’t make appointments, Harvard officials urged students soon to get their vaccines in the Boston area because “the first dose of a two-dose vaccine offers partial protection.” They did, however, note that anyone receiving them should ensure how they are to get that second dose. It said exceptions will be made “only for medical or religious reasons.”

Harvard is not mandating faculty, staff and researchers be vaccinated, although it said it would send further guidance soon. However, the university expects they “will make every effort to be vaccinated.”

Because Harvard has a significant number of international students, it is allowing students who have either FDA- or World Health Organization-approved vaccines such as AstraZeneca and Oxford to be eligible to return, but officials said they may be tested more frequently. For those who cannot get vaccinated by the fall, Harvard said it would provide clinic options for when they return to campus.

Expectations for the fall

Harvard said it has done well to prevent outbreaks on its campus this year, as students have heeded to guidance. COVID cases in Massachusetts continue to retreat daily, but still only 39% of the population in the state have been fully vaccinated. About 53% have received first doses. The state is flush with colleges and universities, and many will enforce mandates in the fall, including the University of Massachusetts system, and four of the biggest in the Boston area – Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern and MIT.

Like most institutions, Harvard believes the more students that are vaccinated the more protected their communities will be and the more quickly they will be able to reopen.

“We hope to be able to offer a less restricted, robust on-campus experience for all our students this fall. These plans, however, depend on low infection rates in our community and across our region,” Bacow and his team wrote.


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Even with the vaccines, Harvard is still planning to test students, though it says the frequency of those tests remain fluid. Masks still need to be worn, even outdoors where 6 feet of distancing cannot be achieved. “Community members should have an acceptable face covering on their persons at all times when on campus,” they wrote.

For those that are leaving campus for the summer, Harvard officials this guidance to their students, staff and faculty:

“As the CDC has announced, if you are fully vaccinated, you can resume many activities, particularly outdoors, that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. This summer will be a time to take advantage of warm-weather outdoor activities. In certain indoor settings, you should continue to take additional precautions like wearing a well-fitted mask. … No matter how daunting or overwhelming a challenge our community faces, we will come together, support each other, and find a way to overcome and thrive.”