Vaccine mandate or not? Fall plans at 10 universities that saw COVID spikes in 20-21

Michigan State and Wisconsin are among the many that aren't requiring them or requiring masks.
By: | July 1, 2021
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During the past week, both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University announced they were not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for the fall semester, but rather encouraging them. The two institutions also have lifted restrictions on masks for those who are vaccinated, relying on an honor system among students, staff and faculty to ensure there is no potential spread of the virus.

“Once a person is vaccinated, they have the highest level of protection,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in a letter to the UW community. “Even if they are sitting immediately next to someone who tests positive, this is no longer considered a close contact and quarantine is not required. The vaccine offers such high protection that the risk of transmission is very low.”

A similar refrain has been echoed by other colleges and universities seeking to reopen more traditionally this fall and heeding to public health guidance largely from the Centers for Disease Control. But the quick spread of the Delta variant in counties across the U.S. and in some countries has raised concerns among health officials about whether COVID-19 can be contracted and spread even among vaccinated adults. In addition to vaccine mandates, a couple of institutions, including Monmouth University in New Jersey, have announced indoor mask mandates will be in effect as a precaution.

The University of Wisconsin and Michigan State–and eight other large institutions–could present a unique case study in the fall if there are outbreaks similar to fall 2020. Among 20 institutions in the U.S. with the most positive cases over the past year, colleges and universities accounted for all of them, according to a tracker being kept by the New York Times. (Percentage-wise, it is important to note that they also had larger populations than most.) The next-highest locations outside of higher ed were prisons, followed by spikes at food processing plants.

It is worth noting that after spikes in cases last fall, many institutions quickly rolled out mask and social distancing mandates, along with remote or hybrid learning in the spring. Here is what those 10 major institutions are planning for fall (subject to change):


THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA (52,400 students)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 9,914
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Masks: No
  • Physical distancing: No
  • Key number: UF reported that 80% of its students had been vaccinated before June. That’s strong considering that Alachua County, where Gainesville is located, has vaccinated about 50% of its population.

INDIANA UNIVERSITY AT BLOOMINGTON (43,260)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 8,607
  • Vaccine mandates: Yes, for students, staff and faculty
  • Masks: No
  • Physical distancing: No
  • Key number: In April, the University conducted a survey, and 64% said they were very likely to get vaccinated. Now they will have to be, unless they qualify for an exemption.

THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY (61,390)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 8,008
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Masks: Yes for all on public transportation and in medical centers, and at all times indoors for unvaccinated individuals
  • Physical distancing: Yes, indoors for unvaccinated individuals only
  • Key number: University officials say 60% of students, staff and faculty have been vaccinated

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON (45,300)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 7,708
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Masks: No
  • Physical distancing: No
  • Key number: According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, around 50% of students and 75% of faculty have gotten vaccines.

PENN STATE UNIVERSITY (University Park 47,223)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 7,691
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Masks: Yes for all on public transportation and in medical centers, and at all times indoors for unvaccinated individuals
  • Physical distancing: No
  • Key number: Penn State has offered several incentives, including a $1,000 prize to one lucky winner who gets vaccinated. While students are asked to enter their vaccine status, it is not required and no tally of those vaccinated is kept on its COVID-19 dashboard.

CLEMSON UNIVERSITY (25,800)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 7,597
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Physical distancing: None listed
  • Masks: No, except in medical facilities and on public transportation
  • Key number: Clemson has eased its testing of unvaccinated individuals from every 7 days to every 30 days. 

ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY (Tempe 53,286)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 6,766
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Physical distancing: None listed
  • Masks: Yes, for unvaccinated individuals indoors only
  • Key number: 48% of residents in Maricopa County, where Tempe is located, have been fully vaccinated.

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS (Urbana-Champaign 51,600)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 6,391
  • Vaccine mandates: Yes, for students only. No decision yet on faculty or staff
  • Physical distancing: No, except for unvaccinated individuals not wearing masks outside
  • Masks: Yes, for unvaccinated students indoors only
  • Key number: Illinois had a huge spike of cases in late August 2020 but like most institutions enjoyed very low numbers in the spring, hovering around a .05% positivity rate.

UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA (38,920)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 6,200+ est.
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Physical distancing: No
  • Masks: No
  • Key number: 38% of those living in Athens-Clarke County where the university is located are fully vaccinated. Only 41% have received the first dose.

PURDUE UNIVERSITY (West Lafayette 44,551)

  • Positive cases during past 14 months: 6,203
  • Vaccine mandates: No for students, staff and faculty
  • Physical distancing: None listed
  • Masks: Yes, for everyone in all classroom spaces. No for other indoor spaces
  • Key number: Purdue has conducted more than 200,000 tests. Of those, 1% were deemed severe COVID cases. The majority were mild or asymptomatic.

Of the next 10 colleges and universities with the highest number of cases in the past year, the only one requiring vaccines is the University of Michigan, and it is solely a mandate for those living on campus. These others are not: Texas A&M University, Brigham Young University, University of South Carolina, University of Alabama, University of Arizona, University of Central Florida, Michigan State University and the University of Kentucky.