Colleges Are Struggling With How To Handle Vaccine Mandates

Sep 14, 2021
Originally published on September 14, 2021 4:33 pm
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A debate over coronavirus vaccine requirements is underway at universities across the country. And at one university in Ohio, administrators are taking a different approach, one that itself is controversial. Ideastream Public Media's Taylor Haggerty reports.

TAYLOR HAGGERTY, BYLINE: A growing number of colleges and universities are requiring vaccines for everyone on campus as the fall semester begins, but Cleveland State University is trying something different. While students living on campus need to be fully vaccinated, everyone else gets to make that choice for themselves. University officials argue that their plans for a six-week education campaign encouraging vaccinations could essentially be more effective than a mandate. Here's Chief of Health Strategy Dr. Forrest Faison.

FORREST FAISON: We believe in vaccinations, and we believe our approach is the best way to get more of us vaccinated.

HAGGERTY: He argues that mandates at other schools should include exclusions and exemptions that can lower the number of people being vaccinated. Senior student Alex Mullenax disagrees. Mullenax says while teachers are taking the pandemic seriously, she isn't confident that administrators are. That comes as the university's president has tested positive for COVID-19.

ALEX MULLENAX: It's hard because it was getting so much better at the beginning of summer, and now it's really bad again, and they're acting like it's not.

HAGGERTY: Mullenax is in favor of a full vaccine mandate. The absence of one makes her nervous about there being an outbreak on campus, and she says it makes it harder for her to focus on schoolwork. But freshman Francisco Velez says that while it makes sense to require vaccinations in the dorms, the off-campus students should be able to make the decision themselves, even if he thinks the vaccine is the right choice.

FRANCISCO VELEZ: On campus, that makes a lot of sense, especially because the cases are spiking right now. On campus, it'll just get worse. It'll spread to more and more people in the bubble.

HAGGERTY: Cleveland State University still requires indoor masking and random testing and offers outreach and incentives to encourage vaccines. Anita Barkin is with the American College Health Association's COVID-19 task force. She says education and outreach is certainly important in keeping everyone safe, but she points to history, which she says shows it's mandates that are the best way to achieve high vaccination rates.

ANITA BARKIN: We have for decades had immunization requirements in place on college campuses. Our records in terms of looking at outbreaks of infectious disease provide strong support for the fact that requirements work.

HAGGERTY: As for exemptions and exclusions, Barkin says research shows those only cover a small segment of college populations, and they don't have a huge impact on efforts to reduce infectious diseases like the coronavirus. Letting people remain unvaccinated, though, has consequences. Dr. Georges Benjamin, who heads the American Public Health Association, says we're seeing those consequences in this wave of the pandemic.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: The real challenge here is that they are preventable deaths, and right now this pandemic has migrated from being a pandemic of all of us to a pandemic primarily of the unvaccinated.

HAGGERTY: Benjamin and others stress that lower vaccination rates lead to outbreaks, and those provide opportunities for the virus to develop new variants. He argues that the prevalence of misinformation and distrust means making the vaccine optional just doesn't work and says the best way to make sure everyone is safe is to embrace a mandate.

For NPR News, I'm Taylor Haggerty in Cleveland.

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