Apr 7, 2021 - Health

List of universities requiring vaccines grows and so does pushback

Illustration of a vaccine card as the mortarboard of a graduation cap.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The list of universities requiring vaccinations to return to campus in the fall is growing longer by the day.

Why it matters: With the mandates, universities are going where most corporations have not. The political and legal blowback is already taking shape.

  • The requirements will help ensure a full return to normal, which has huge financial upside for the colleges — and the workers and businesses that depend on them — that were pummeled during the pandemic year. 

What they’re saying: “If you’re a residential college, some of those have taken big hits because they have dormitories to maintain and they haven’t collected any revenue from them,” Sandy Baum, a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute, tells Axios.

What’s going on: Brown University is the latest to mandate a vaccine for students and faculty in the fall — joining Cornell, Nova Southeastern Florida and others.

  • New Jersey-based public university Rutgers was among the first to announce it would require shots for students, though not for faculty and staff.
  • Rutgers says “data clearly reflects that students have a 60% to 70% higher positivity rate than faculty and staff. This is to be expected since they are highly mobile and highly interactive,” per a statement. 

Another caveat: Universities say students with religious or medical reasons can be exempt — a process that may be a logistical and legal nightmare, education trade group American Council on Education warns.

  • “Legally and respectfully” managing these requests “will require administrative attention and risk vocal challenges ... likely amplified on social media,” the group says in a recent brief.
  • Even if mandates ultimately become permissible in schools and workplaces, policymakers will likely consider whether mandates are “the most effective means in accomplishing this goal” of mass vaccinations, a Wednesday policy brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation says. 

Background: Colleges have historically required vaccines for other viruses.

The big picture: Other universities are encouraging students to get vaccinated, even with incentives, but have stopped short of a mandate, saying there is an equity benefit to not excluding all those who can’t or decide not to receive a shot.

  • Arizona University has been vocal in having maintained a low positivity rate of 0.31% and will not mandate student vaccinations.
  • University of Florida partnered with the state to secure mass vaccination plans for any student who wants one. 

Some lawmakers are pushing back on mandates overall, including for schools. 

  • Some states are considering legislation that would prohibit entities like schools and private businesses from conditioning attendance or services on receipt of the COVID-19 vaccine, per KFF. 
  • One New Jersey assemblywoman plans to introduce legislation to prevent Rutgers from mandating students to getting the vaccine by the fall, Patch reports.

The next flashpoint: How students will prove they are vaccinated as “vaccine passports” stir up political feuds.

  • States like Texas and Florida are banning them — with potential implications for colleges based there. NIAID’s Anthony Fauci said this week the federal government won’t mandate vaccine passports.
  • Florida-based Nova Southeastern — which has a vaccination center onsite — tells Axios it’s still figuring out a verification system for people inoculated elsewhere.
  • Northeastern says an announcement on how students will prove their status is coming soon.
  • Cornell has set up a “proof of vaccination” portal.
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