COVID-19 mandates imposed by colleges and universities during the 2021 fall semester were instrumental in substantially reducing overall case counts and in lowering deaths in their individual communities by 5%, according to a new report from Michigan State University.
The research study, led by economics professor Scott Imberman and doctoral student Wenjia Cao and using data from the College Crisis Initiative, is said to be the first in the U.S. to show a direct correlation between vaccine requirements at institutions of higher education and their effectiveness in reducing transmission and the most severe outcomes in their regions.
In their paper, The Effect of Vaccine Mandates on Disease Spread: Evidence from College COVID-19 Mandates, the MSU team went county by county across the United States and determined that there were 339 fewer cases and 5.4 fewer deaths per 100,000 residents by comparing periods before and after the fall semester start date and vaccine requirements, or lack thereof. They said the goal was not to see how students were affected—since they have been largely healthy through the pandemic and less than 50% of those in the 18-24 age group had been vaccinated—but how effective their college’s mitigation strategies worked in surrounding areas.
“While there is evidence that vaccines improve health outcomes for individuals, our analysis showed that college- and university-imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates also benefited the community beyond the campus,” Imberman said in a report released by the university. “Given the mandates mostly impact students who are very unlikely to die from COVID, we argue that virtually all of the saved lives are due to reduction in transmission to other members of the community.”
With another fall semester quickly approaching, colleges and universities are taking a far more relaxed, endemic-driven path than they did in 2020 and in 2021 when a dual wave of delta, then omicron, hit campuses. Many have removed masking and testing requirements, and those that did have vaccine mandates saw nearly full compliance, though boosters have been a bit more challenging both to get students on board and to track. Some institutions such as the University of Iowa, which doesn’t have mandates, abandoned reporting cases to its online portals altogether for students and employees on Monday, stating that the lack of compliance has led to inaccuracies.
But not all institutions are giving in. Many of the 688 colleges and universities that put vaccine requirements in place are still enforcing them. Some are requiring boosters, while others are simply encouraging them. Even in areas where there has been relaxation on protocols, there has been a return of mandatory masking. Ohio University reimposed them this week because of high case counts, as did Northern Michigan University. Case counts across the U.S. might be trending down, however, positivity rates remain above 10% in all but five states. Interestingly, most of those with the lowest positivity are also those with the highest compliance with vaccines, including five of six in New England—Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut—which have at least 80% of individuals vaccinated.
For colleges and universities, Michigan State’s researchers note in their report that leaders should still be watching emerging variants. The BA.5 subvariant is still circulating and a new spinoff of omicron, BA.4.6, has emerged in California, though there has not been much in the way of reports about its transmissibility or severity. Penn State University is one that has reduced some of its protocols but is staying vigilant while continuing to provide resources, including masks, sanitizers and even testing and contact tracing across campus for students, staff and faculty.
“While we are largely returning to normal activities, both on our campuses and in other aspects of our daily lives, it is important to remember that coronavirus is still with us and we all have to take precautions to avoid contracting and spreading COVID-19,” Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said in a statement. “We have the tools and knowledge to be as safe as possible. Focusing on self-care and making healthy decisions are important measures to keep ourselves and our campus communities healthy.”