Will FDA vaccine approval hopes quell delta fears among college leaders?

Can institutions wait another month on requirements?
By: | August 6, 2021
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Full approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine could come as soon as early September, according to new reports from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. For colleges and universities that based their mandates on vaccines clearing the emergency use authorization hurdle—and those that may reconsider their policies where no requirement is in place—that is significant.

Still, holding off another month may be difficult for those that hoped to get that green light from the FDA before the start of the fall semester, especially with the delta, delta plus and lambda variants lurking. More contagious, more prevalent and perhaps more potent, Delta is now showing up in more than 90% of new cases, becoming a dominant, uncertain force and one that seems to be targeting younger adults.

With COVID-positive numbers spiking again, some institutions have decided not to wait. The University of California and California State University systems dropped the EUA portion of its requirement and the University of Maine system on Thursday announced it also was moving forward without it.

“Scientists are saying that if you’re not vaccinating, delta is going to find you,” UMaine Chancellor Dannel Malloy, the former governor of Connecticut, said in a statement. “Let’s just dwell on that. It’s five times more likely to be transmitted. That’s the reality of the situation we’re in. Science has been our guide throughout the pandemic and suggests that almost everyone is safer through vaccination.”

Decisions, decisions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinated individuals who experience breakthrough cases of the delta variant are 20 times less likely to be hospitalized or die than those who are not. So for many campus leaders whose decisions hinge on full approval, time is of the essence. Colorado State University has a mandate in place but indicated Thursday it will wait out full approval. However, Chancellor Tony Frank has asked its board of governors to allow individual campuses to make their own decisions on mandates since locations across the state may experience higher surges of cases or hospitalizations than others.

Will others with the same policies be patient enough to wait, too?

The State University of New York system, with nearly 200,000 students stretched across 64 campuses, has not budged from its initial stance of a vaccine requirement only when full approval is granted. Students at some campuses will arrive weeks before that. SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras noted that 75% of students polled said they had received first doses, and the system was pressing for more through a 30-day vaccine challenge launched three weeks ago. Since that time, cases in New York state have increased from just over 300 per day to more than 2,800.

The University of Richmond also has a mandate with an FDA approval in place. In the meantime, they will be encouraging mitigation strategies to try to prevent outbreaks—social distancing and masking while strongly urging students to get vaccines. In Virginia, numbers have skyrocketed from 175 cases per day in early July to nearly 1,400. Neither state has a ban on vaccine passports.

Perhaps the most unique of all mandate-with-full-approval strategies is playing out in the University of Hawaii system. Because more than 92% of students and 95% of faculty have been vaccinated, that has given UH a bit more of a window to keep its status in place and not press for a full mandate now. Once approval happens, it then plans to enforce vaccinations.

“We are leaving the requirement in place, even if not fully enforced, to make the message clear,” President David Lassner told the UH community. “The single most important thing our students and employees can do to protect the health and wellbeing of themselves, their families and our campus communities is to be fully vaccinated for the upcoming fall semester. 159 million Americans have safely received the vaccine, and we are now seeing a growing number of preventable COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated.”