Why colleges in one state are struggling to vaccinate students

Even incentives, urgency can't sway populations at institutions.
By: | July 20, 2021
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Wofford College is one of only two institutions of higher education in South Carolina mandating COVID-19 vaccines for the fall, albeit not until the U.S. Food & Drug Administration gives the doses full approval.

But that requirement doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction with students.

With its “preferred deadline” of July 30 for submissions fast approaching, Wofford has both urged vaccinations and launched several incentives to try to get closer to a more robust campus reopening by the fall. However, because the vast majority have not complied or indicated doing so—only 35% of students have volunteered their status—Wofford says it has no choice but to halt certain activities where distancing cannot be achieved.

“At this time, the percentage of vaccinated students is too low to allow us to return to the social activities and large group gatherings that are such an important part of the Wofford experience,” the email to students said. “All classes and labs, however, will be held in person, and remote learning options will not be available. We all have a responsibility to our community of learners, so please consider how you can do your part.”

Faculty and staff are doing their part, with nearly 80% now submitting their status. But getting students across the vaccine goal line might be more challenging, especially in a state where vaccination rates are low and where there has been a backlash against some vaccine efforts from political leaders.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster touted the availability of vaccines in March but banned vaccine passports and mask mandates in May, calling them “un-American to the core”. McMaster himself got COVID-19 in January, then got the vaccine in April. The state still has not reached the 40% threshold for full vaccinations, and only 45% have even received first doses. Only seven states have populations with fewer vaccinations, many of which are located in the southern U.S. The numbers of those in the 20-24 age bracket in South Carolina who have received vaccines is extremely low: only 20,000 out of approximately 280,000, according to Department of Health and Environmental Control data. The State newspaper in South Carolina reported COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed in the past few weeks, sparked by the arrival of the Delta variant.

Still searching for ways to get more students vaccinated, here are what some other institutions are facing:

  • One of the largest institutions in the state is the University of South Carolina, which is strongly encouraging vaccines for its 34,000-plus students but cannot require them. Despite the state mask mandate, the university said it does “expect” that those who are unvaccinated will be masked indoors and will test for COVID-19 when they return to campus.
  • The College of Charleston, which surveyed students to ask them about vaccine status several weeks ago, now can no longer do that according to the state law that bans passports.
  • Furman University, the lone institution with a mandate that does include FDA approval, has expressed confidence it “will return to normal operations in the fall.” It does not have a policy in place for faculty and staff because it is “consistent with our approach to all other immunizations. For example, we do not require employees to vaccinate against common community-acquired infections.”
  • Clemson University, which experienced a spike of 675 positive cases last September, has told unvaccinated students they “should” wear masks, stay 6 feet from others and get vaccinated.

Across the nation, 575 institutions are requiring COVID-19 vaccines this fall, some that have installed mandates for students only and some that are requiring staff and faculty get them as well. The University of California system, uneasy about the potential spread of the Delta variant, wiped away the “with FDA approval” tag on its vaccine mandate last week. Some have kept that asterisk, including the California State University, University of Maine, University of Hawaii and Colorado State University systems.