Top experts urge colleges to require vaccines, step up COVID-19 strategies

Collaborative of bipartisan leaders pens letter pressing institutions to act quickly with delta variant spreading.

A collection of some of the nation’s top public health officials, faculty experts and leaders from across both sides of the political arena have sent a letter to institutions of higher education calling for them to strengthen their COVID-19 pandemic procedures and strategies.

The COVID Collaborative lauded colleges and universities for their efforts in keeping their populations and surrounding communities largely safe over the past 18 months, but the emergence of the delta variant and the widespread reopening of campuses in this fall have elevated concerns.

“The delta variant is a serious risk to campuses, which by their nature are high-risk congregate settings for infectious disease transmission,” said Andy Slavitt, Former White House Senior Advisor for COVID-19 response and former Acting Administrator for the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “The measures put in place by institutions of higher education throughout the pandemic have saved lives and we urge more colleges and universities to implement the recommendations outlined in today’s letter.”

Slavitt is among a bipartisan group from various administrations (Biden, Trump, Bush, Obama and Clinton) who in the letter have called for—but are not mandating—that colleges create #COVIDSafeZones strategies that include the requiring of vaccination, leaning on the recommendation from the American College Health Association. They boldly indicated they wanted to see colleges “get as close as possible to 100 percent of their students, faculty and staff vaccinated early in the academic year.”

Authors write in the letter: “We are seeking your help. Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs), which employ over 3 million individuals and are attended by over 19 million students, must continue to pull together. College campuses, by their nature, are high-risk congregate settings for infectious disease transmission. People not protected by vaccines are becoming infected faster, from more limited contact.”

More from UB: State-by-state, the colleges mandating masks and vaccines

Around 700 institutions have installed vaccine mandates—and several have reported a more than 90% vaccination rate among students and faculty—but thousands of others do not have the requirements or have their populations close to those targets, notably in states where bans on mandates were put in place and have become COVID hotspots.

Many more, however, have heeded one of the pieces of guidance from the Collaborative, which is to mask up. Others include robustly screening for infection of those who are unvaccinated with testing twice per week and tracking both COVID-positive cases and vaccinations. The goal: get close to 100 percent and restrictions can be loosened and classes and activities can return to near normal.

“We want to keep colleges and universities open for student learning,” said Mark McClellan, Director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and former FDA Commissioner and Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator. “But to do so, we must do it in a way that will keep everyone safe. These steps by campuses will protect not only the students, faculty, and staff, but also individuals living in the communities that house these campuses.”

One of the four keys to any reopening strategy, they highlighted, was the ability to adapt to breaking developments. Colleges and universities on the whole were able to do that almost seamlessly last year, moving classes online and/or isolating and quarantining populations.

Short of vaccine and mask requirements, the Collaborative notes that colleges should consider incentives programs, paid leave for faculty and staff and allowing those who are already vaccinated to not have to submit to regular testing.

Those who helped pen the letter include:


  • Barbara Alexander, President, Infectious Diseases Society of America; Professor of Medicine and Pathology, Duke University
  • Robert Califf; of Cardiology, Duke School of Medicine; Fmr. FDA Commissioner
  • Richard Carmona, 17th Surgeon General of The United States; Distinguished Professor, University of Arizona
  • Carlos del Rio, Professor, Emory University School of Medicine; International Secretary, National Academy of Medicine
  • Mark Dybul, Co-Director, Georgetown Center for Global Health & Impact; Fmr. ED, Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria, TB; Fmr. U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator
  • Ezekiel Emanuel, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and Former Special Advisor on Health Policy, Office of Management and Budget and National Economic Council
  • Monica Gandhi, Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief, University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital
  • Ashish Jha, Dean, Brown University School of Public Health
  • Rebecca Katz, Professor and Director Center for Global Health Science and Security, Georgetown University
  • Mark McClellan, Dir, Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy; Fmr. FDA Commissioner & Adm, Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services
  • Lauren Ancel Meyers, Professor, University of Texas at Austin
  • Ted Mitchell, President, American Council on Education
  • Melanie Ott, Director, Gladstone Institute of Virology; Professor of Medicine, University of California San Francisco
  • Michelle Williams, Co-Founder, COVID Collaborative; Dean, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Philip Zelikow, Director, Covid Commission Planning Group; Professor, University of Virginia
  • Robert Wachter, Chairman, Department of Medicine, UCSF
  • James Wilkinson, CEO, American College Health Association


Jerome Adams, 20th Surgeon General of the United States; Georges Benjamin, Executive Director, American Public Health Association; David Brailer, Former National Coordinator for Health Information Technology; Raymond Chambers, Co-Founder, COVID Collaborative; WHO Ambassador for Global Strategy; Karen DeSalvo, Fmr. Asst. Secy. for Health (Acting), Natl Coordinator for HIT, and New Orleans Health Commissioner; Joycelyn Elders, 15th Surgeon General of the United States; Tom Frieden, President & CEO, Resolve to Save Lives; Fmr. Director, CDC; Margaret (Peggy) Hamburg, Fmr. FDA Commissioner; Fmr. Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Medicine; Mike Leavitt, Fmr. U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services; Fmr. Governor & U.S. Senator (R-UT); Kathleen Sebelius, Fmr. U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services; Fmr. Governor (D-KS); Andy Slavitt, Fmr. Senior Adviser to COVID-19 Response Coordinator; Fmr. Acting Administrator, Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services CMS; Seema Verma, Former Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.


Melody Barnes, Former Director, White House Domestic Policy Council; John Bridgeland, Co-Founder & CEO, COVID Collaborative and Former Director, White House Domestic Policy Council; Tom Daschle, Former U.S. Senator (D-SD); Fmr. Senate Majority Leader; Gary Edson, President, COVID Collaborative; Fmr. Deputy National Security Adviser; William Frist; Fmr. U.S. Senator (R-TN); Fmr. Senate Majority Leader; Scott Gottlieb, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; Former FDA Commissioner; Deval Patrick, Fmr. Governor (D-MA); Steven Phillips, Vice President Science and Strategy COVID Collaborative; Fmr. Medical Director, Global Projects, Exxon Mobil Corporation; Lisa Sherman, President & CEO, The Ad Council.

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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