How 10 big state universities, mandates or not, are faring with COVID-19

What role does being vaccinated play in lower numbers this fall?
By: | October 29, 2021
Adobe Stock

Of the flagship universities across the U.S., half have COVID-19 vaccine mandates in place for students—a split that largely mirrors state politics, but not always. Many institutions that require them have eclipsed the 90% mark in ensuring the two-dose schedules from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have been met. But does that extra layer of assurance—vaccinations—mean lower reported cases of COVID-19?

The short answer: It’s difficult to draw parallels. Every institution’s dashboard and mitigation strategies are different—some have more robust testing and masking protocols than others, which also help prevent transmission.

But two patterns seem clear. With vaccinations, there have been fewer cases among the millions who attend and work in higher education this year than in the fall of 2020, despite more busy campuses. Even at colleges without mandates, like the University of Kentucky, large percentages of students have been vaccinated. Also, most universities, whether they are in conservative or liberal states, also are seeing steep declines in positive cases over the past two weeks.

“UConn’s numbers are significantly lower than they were last year,” said Stephanie Reitz, University of Connecticut spokesperson. “We think that’s largely due to the high vaccination rates (99% of residential students).”

Public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and many institutional leaders—continue to press vaccinations as the No. 1 strategy to prevent positive cases and outbreaks. And they will be necessary to limit spread before and during holiday breaks, when increased testing last year turned up more COVID-19 positives.

University Business analyzed data from 10 large institutions to gauge their COVID-19 cases since the start of the semester when a larger number of tests were conducted as students reentered campuses. Some track cases daily while others update weekly:

Those with mandates (with undergraduate enrollment from 2020)

University of Connecticut (18,917): Current positive cases: 4

UConn has reported 65 positive cases this fall from both its on-campus and campus populations in Storrs. The positivity rate among more than 10,000 tests done on its main campus was less than 0.01% during its last reporting period.

University of Maryland (30,875) Current positive cases: 20*

In addition to the 12 positives conducted in testing on campus, UMD indicated 8 others who self-reported. Those numbers are excellent given the size of the institution, which has a 93% vaccination rate. Its peak positive day this fall was Sept. 13, when it logged 29 cases. Last year, its top day reached 87. It did not have a single case on Oct. 25 or 26 from 857 tests on campus.

University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (33,683): Current positive cases: 15

The university was a late adopter of a vaccine mandate after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order on Aug. 26. Case counts fell precipitously from Aug. 30 (74) to just four on Monday. However, Tuesday’s numbers showed a rise to 10, the most in nearly two weeks, so it bears watching. The UI community is 95% vaccinated.

University of Massachusetts (24,233) Current positive cases: 13

UMass has had more than 90% of its population vaccinated since the beginning of the semester, yet has had 722 total cases this fall (including 634 from Sept. 1-21). During one testing period, there were 380 positives for a 4.18% positivity rate. Off-campus students largely drove numbers higher. There has been better news in the past week, with 13 positives and just one from an on-campus student.

University of Oregon (18,045): Positive tests last week: 14

Oregon experienced a two-week spike in positive cases near the start of its semester, accounting for 115 of its 263 positive cases from students, faculty and staff. Like other institutions, it has seen case counts drop dramatically into October. Of the 14 current positive cases, only 3 came from students on campus.

Those without vaccine mandates

University of Alabama (31,670): Positive tests last week: 8

The university posted 506 cases in late August and early September. But in the past month, it has reported 103 total positives and just 17 total in the past two 7-day reporting periods. Faculty and staff case counts have fallen from 106 in that four-week period early in the semester to 38 in the past month (and six from Oct. 11-17).

University of Georgia (29,765): Positive tests last week: 27

The university noted on Friday that its case counts have decreased 95% since the early part of September when it saw 243 cases across a three week-period that included late August. During Oct. 18-24, the were 27 positive results. Georgia, however, performed about half as many surveillance tests during the current period than it did to start the semester. The positivity rate was 0.796%, much higher than at UConn.

University of Idaho (8,366): Positive tests last week: 6

The university has had 75 positive cases overall since the start of the semester. Its largest number of cases was 27 from Aug. 28-Sept 3. Since then, positives have remained in the single digits every week. Compare that with last spring’s data, when the university saw 373 positive results. Idaho will be closely monitoring the period before Thanksgiving: Last year’s large pool of surveillance tests churned up 129 positives cases.

University of Missouri (23,396): Current active cases: 21

There have been 305 confirmed positive cases of students and 89 of faculty/staff since Aug. 22, according to Columbia/Boone County Health and Human Services. The highest daily active number of cases was 57 in the second week of September. Since then, numbers have remained fairly level at 20-30 active cases per day. Compare these totals with last year, and it’s night and day: Missouri had 683 active cases in early September last year.

University of Texas-Austin (40,048): Current active cases: 35

Texas has had more than 5,000 cases since the pandemic started in March 2020, but this year’s numbers seem a bit better. Since Sept. 1, there have been 321 positive student cases and 44 from faculty/staff. Though case counts have fallen throughout the semester, there has been a slight rise this week to 35.