After a slow start to its vaccine rollout, the state of Florida has ramped up efforts over the past month. More than 9 million people have received at least one dose, including five million who have completed their series. On Monday, all citizens over the age of 16 will be eligible to be vaccinated.
The outlook in the Sunshine State – and in many others – is prompting some college and university leaders to consider requiring vaccines for those heading back to campus for the fall semester.
One of them is Nova Southeastern University, the largest private nonprofit in Florida, which announced it will return to full in-person learning but with this caveat – faculty and students must be vaccinated by Aug. 1, with some limited exemptions.
“What makes this different from what other colleges and universities have announced for the fall semester is that NSU is mandating that all students and employees be fully vaccinated,” NSU Florida’s announcement to the community said.
NSU Florida said it will release further plans in the coming weeks. To help ease the burden of getting doses to everyone in its community, its main campus has been approved as a vaccination site.
The university has done well since last March to mitigate COVID spread throughout its campuses and says it will continue its cleaning and sanitizing protocols that led to that success. While adhering to public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it will be increasing activities, including athletics in the fall. Classes will return in person, though NSU Florida says its BrandFlex learning model will allow for some remote instruction.
“The pandemic has presented many challenges over the last year, and we came together to adapt. I am truly proud of the NSU community,” said Dr. George Hanbury, NSU Florida’s President and CEO. “It’s thanks to the vigilance of our students, faculty and staff that we’ve remained free from significant outbreaks this year.”
How the rest of Florida is responding
Down the road 30 miles in Coral Gables, the University of Miami is taking a more wait-and-see approach.
It held a forum two weeks ago on the subject: “Should COVID-19 vaccines be Mandatory on College Campuses” with a panel of health experts. Two of them, Dr. Carlos del Rio, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and Dr. Lainie Friedman Ross, associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, said institutions should look at voluntary vaccinations before making the call to mandate them. Del Rio did say in the forum that the possibility could exist for students who are not vaccinated to be left out of certain activities, including large campus gatherings.
Dr. Henri Ford, dean of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, said vaccination should be mandatory if herd immunity cannot be achieved. But UM President Julio Frenk, former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Minister of Health in Mexico, was more cautious, saying his university will weigh those decisions over the coming months.
Throughout the state, there hasn’t been much debate. Many institutions have shown a reluctance to force students to get vaccines.
In fact, despite the robust rollout under Gov. Ron DeSantis, NSUFlorida is the only institution currently requiring vaccines for students. In the Orlando area, none of these colleges – the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Stetson University or Rollins College – say they will require them. Florida State University emphatically notes on its website that “vaccination is not required for students and employees.”
The University of Florida is one of nearly two dozen institutions having its students take part in a Moderna vaccine trial to look at how COVID-19 spreads and has been encouraging vaccination of its faculty and others, including students. So far it is not requiring vaccinations but has said that those who do complete the series will no longer have to be tested on campus or quarantined if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive.
That might be one of the many incentives del Rio mentioned institutions can lean on to try to get students vaccinated.
Nationwide, a split on decisions
On Friday, Cornell University announced it will require vaccinations of all students, becoming one of the few institutions nationwide to join the cause. In a statement it said, “more than 90 million U.S. residents have safely received one or more doses of a currently approved COVID-19 vaccine, and recent data indicate that these vaccines not only protect those inoculated from serious infection, but also are protective for asymptomatic infection and the risk of transmission of virus to others.” Like NSUFlorida, it will consider medical and religious exemptions. Cornell said if it can reach herd immunity by the fall, it will return those remote classes to in-person instruction.
Roger Williams College in Rhode Island also jumped on board Friday, requiring students to be vaccinated while also urging all faculty members to have their shots, as well. The college noted it will keep many protocols in place over the coming months – from mask wearing to social distancing.
Rutgers University was one of the first in the nation to require students be vaccinated, citing the likelihood that Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be available to all those in the community by May. Included in that pool are those newly entering the university who are under 18, since Pfizer doses have been safely recommended for those over 16.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have said that the safety of the Rutgers community is a shared responsibility,” Antonio Calcado, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Rutgers, said in a statement to the university. “An effective vaccination program is a continuation of Rutgers’ commitment to health and safety for all members of our community of more than 71,000 students, the cities we are in and the communities we serve throughout New Jersey.”
Several others have jumped on board too: Northeastern University, the University of Notre Dame, Ithaca College, Brown University, Fort Lewis College and St. Edward’s University.
But many more colleges and universities are taking the Miami approach. It could be that they are waiting to see what decisions are made by other institutions or perhaps leaning on their own local public health guidance.
According to a report in the Portland Press-Herald, Maine universities are reluctant now to mandate vaccinations, saying they will simply encourage their populations to get them. But when emergency use authorization lifts, the University of Maine system is one that will consider requiring it. Maine is one of the states experiencing a new surge in cases, reporting more than 400 per day for the first time in nearly two months.
Like Maine, Idaho colleges have also leaned to asking students to get the vaccine, rather than require it. Like Florida, the state is opening up its pool of those eligible to over 16 on April 5, but none of these universities – Boise State University, the College of Idaho, the College of Western Idaho and College of Southern Idaho – say they will mandate it.