Personal choice? How universities are reacting to COVID-19 vaccine exemptions

A look at how institutions in states that allow philosophical refusals for vaccination are being impacted during the pandemic.

Public universities across Ohio and Louisiana adopted COVID-19 vaccine requirements this summer, moves that drew a buzz from both sides of the political aisle in their respective states. In the fine print came this catch: students could request an exemption for philosophical reasons.

In 15 states, laws that cover refusal of other vaccines beyond medical and religious reasons do the same for COVID. That includes Oregon, where a number of institutions, also have imposed COVID requirements this fall.

One institution that has absorbed personal exemptions to post strong vaccination numbers is The Ohio State University, which fought hard to impose its mandate then had to brace for the fallout.

“As of this week, approximately 84% of our student population is either fully or partially vaccinated,” says Chris Booker, Associate Director of Media Relations at Ohio State. “We are in the process of recollecting vaccine information following our new vaccination requirement.”

Ohio State expects to have further details on the success of the mandate, as well as data on those who requested exemptions in the near future. Although there have been 76  positive cases reported over the past seven days, that is less than 2% of the overall tests OSU has conducted. OSU has one of the nation’s best COVID-19 dashboards to keep students, staff and faculty informed.

But several states south, the imposition of the new mandate hasn’t gained quite as much traction among students. The University of Louisiana system reported this week the struggles of many of its individual institutions to reach 50% of vaccinations. At McNeese State, the number hadn’t even eclipsed 25%, while Grambling State, Southeastern University and Louisiana-Lafayette sit at just over 40%. There are two success stories: Louisiana State University is reporting that more than 80% are vaccinated, while Louisiana-Monroe has gone over the 75% mark. It is unclear how much those numbers have been affected by Hurricane Ida, which ravaged parts of the state in late August.

However, Tulane University, smack dab in the heart of New Orleans, has posted stunning vaccination rates for an institution that allows personal exemptions at around 95%.

One potential barrier to institutional success on vaccine mandates have been state stances on passports, as well as the actions of officials. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a strong opponent of mandates, has been actively sharing links through social media and on his web page to exemption opt-outs at universities.

In a letter that addressed potential vaccine mandates, Landry wrote this to the chairman of the four public university systems: “I urge you to approach policy development with a view toward respecting both public health and individual rights and to seek the least restrictive means necessary to achieve the compelling governmental interest of protecting public health. This is, after all, your legal duty and will avoid unnecessary litigation. … Vaccines are a positive development and save lives, but each individual must be permitted to exercise individualized informed consent.”

Despite the challenges, the UL system has managed to get more than 50% of its population vaccinated. That is better than the state’s average, which is hovering around 45% and includes a region in the Southwest that hasn’t reached 34%.

Across the nation

The states that allow for philosophical opt-out of vaccines include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Any institution that imposes restrictions must give students, staff and faculty the option to simply deny receiving them. Of course, many public institutions in those states have no vaccine mandates at all or have been blocked by executive orders and legislation barring “passports.”

In Oregon, public institutions that have imposed mandates just opened their doors for the fall semester, including the University of Oregon. Prior to their arrival, President Michael Schill sent a letter to the community stating that “the science is clear: the COVID-19 vaccine effectively eliminates nearly all COVID-19 infections.” But he had to include this caveat, “As with our existing vaccination requirements, under Oregon law, students will be exempted from the vaccination requirement if they have a medical or non-medical reason.”

In Washington, several universities abandoned the personal/philosophical opt-out in late August. Their state doesn’t require them and with the rise of the delta variant, universities took an additional step to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The University of Washington has both a vaccine mandate and a mask requirement indoors, adhering to a state directive from Gov. Jay Inslee. In Seattle, those restrictions extend beyond campuses. Individuals must present negative COVID tests or vaccine proof at businesses, including restaurants, and large stadiums.

According to Victor Balta, Senior Director for Media Relations and Spokesperson at UW, “The removal of the philosophical exemption was in line with the Governor’s mandate that only medical and religious exemptions for state employees would be allowed. While students aren’t subject to that particular mandate, we determined it was best to align our requirements across the board for students, faculty and staff. More than 45,000 students have submitted vaccination attestations. There have been just over 1,300 requests for exemptions, or 3%. Among students who have attested, thus far, 97% have indicated that they are vaccinated.”

At Washington State University’s five branches, the numbers vary. Nearly 83% on the Pullman campus have submitted proof of vaccination or put in an exemption. But at the four other locations—Everett, Spokane, Tri-Cities and Vancouver—the numbers are all less than 65%. Students have until Oct. 8 to submit them.

One of the most prominent private universities to allow for personal exemptions is Stanford University. But like many other institutions, those that do request them must undergo regular COVID-19 testing. Stanford also notes it may impose “additional requirements aimed at keeping our community safe.” The combination of the mandate and Stanford’s robust testing strategy—it has conducted 360,000 in the past year—has kept the COVID positivity rates relatively low. Last week, it was at .21%.

Other private institutions aren’t taking that risk. Bucknell University’s guidance says simply, “General philosophical or moral objections to the COVID-19 vaccine do not qualify for an exemption,” while Columbia University notes, “Personal and philosophical reasons for not getting vaccinated are insufficient, and requests of this nature will be denied.”

More than 1,000 institutions have imposed some form of vaccine mandate for staff, faculty and students for the fall.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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