Ohio State mandates COVID-19 vaccines, but is it strong enough?

Students can request personal exemption that will be reviewed by the university.
By: | August 24, 2021
Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center campus and University Hospital (Photo courtesy of The Ohio State University)

The Ohio State University announced Tuesday it will require COVID-19 vaccination for the fall semester, going against a state ban on vaccine passports that is set to go into effect in mid-October.

The news comes as COVID-19 cases are spiking both in the state of Ohio and across the country and just after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

“The rising prevalence of the more transmissible Delta variant is fueling the resurgence of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations – including in young and otherwise healthy unvaccinated people,” President Dr. Kristina Johnson wrote in a letter to the OSU community. “Ohio State will now require every student, faculty and staff member to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The university is taking this step because vaccines are the safest and most effective form of protection against COVID-19. We are focused on enhancing the health and safety of our community.”

Today was the first day of classes at the university, which has more than 46,000 undergraduates at its Columbus campus.

It is unclear whether state leaders will try to intervene to prevent the mandate from happening. Before Tuesday, Cleveland State University was the only publicly funded university in Ohio with a vaccine requirement.

The Ohio State community must have first doses completed by Oct. 15 and the second by Nov. 15. But the university is allowing limited exemptions, including those for personal reasons, though it did not indicate what they would be. “All religious and personal exemptions will be reviewed by Student Health Services or Employee Relations in conjunction with Employee Health,” a statement on OSU’s website says. Those who are granted exemptions must undergo weekly testing and wear masks indoors.

The passport question

Vaccine passports have been deemed illegal in 20 states, including Florida and Texas. Until now, those rulings – either via executive order or other legislation – have gone largely unchallenged by publicly funded higher education institutions.

The biggest roadblock was that none of the three vaccines had gotten past emergency use authorization during a pivotal past six months, as colleges were making decisions for the fall. But now, with Pfizer/BioNTech’s full approval and the raging delta variant, there may be new ground to challenge those decisions.

Governors in 11 states filed executive orders to execute bans during the spring and summer: Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. And legislators in these states imposed them as well through bill signing: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee and Utah. There is a common thread: All of them are led by Republican governors (including Mike DeWine in Ohio), although there are eight blue or split states (Nebraska) with conservative leaders who have not imposed bans.

The university noted that hospitalizations in several areas of Ohio have spiked to the highest level since January, a nearly 450% increase during the recent summer months. According to a New York Times tracker, cases in Ohio have risen 77% in the past 14 days. Only 48% of the population is fully vaccinated, despite DeWine’s multiple efforts to offer incentives to get individuals to complete preventive doses.

Ohio State said it is now turning to science to protect its community.

“There is strong support for this requirement in our community, including student, faculty, staff and university leadership,” Johnson wrote. “From the beginning of the pandemic, we have made data-driven, science-based decisions and followed the guidance of medical and public health professionals, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health partners. “Scientists have learned a significant amount about the Delta variant, and this research underscores why being vaccinated is critical to combating COVID-19. … The good news is that vaccinated individuals, though they can get COVID-19, are less contagious than unvaccinated individuals and they are significantly less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus. Masks also continue to be an effective tool at combating the spread of COVID-19. That is why we are implementing our vaccine requirement with urgency as well as continuing our protocol to require everyone to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.”

More than 750 colleges and universities have chosen to implement vaccine mandates and many more have mask requirements in place to start the fall semester. Still, thousands remain without these mandates.

Around the nation

Georgia: The University of Georgia said it will not have social distancing or mask requirements in place, nor will it mandate testing prior to its football games at 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium this year. The university also has no requirements in place for students, faculty and staff. The state COVID case rates and hospitalizations are up more than 50% over the past 14 days and ony 40% of its population is fully vaccinated.

North Carolina: University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told The Daily Tar Heel that he does support a vaccine mandate (UNC doesn’t have one) but that decision under state law rests with the North Carolina Commission for Public Health. Guskiewicz said that that 2,600 students have not attested to getting vaccinated or have refused.

Pennsylvania: According to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, several faculty members at Penn State decided to host their classes remotely rather than in person because of a lack of COVID-19 vaccine mandate at the university. For weeks, they have been demanding change. The university reports that 83% of its students say they have gotten vaccines.

Washington: The University of Washington has eliminated a provision for its community to opt out of a vaccine requirement by citing philosophical reasons.