Aug 6, 2021 - COVID

University of Minnesota vaccine policy faces pushback

Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals

Nearly a dozen Minnesota colleges are now mandating COVID-19 shots ahead of the fall semester — but the state's largest university isn't one of them.

Driving the news: University of St. Thomas and the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University announced this week that they'll join a growing list of higher education institutions requiring the shots.

  • The University of Minnesota, meanwhile, isn't mandating the vaccines for its 50,000 students and thousands of staff here in the Twin Cities, or at its other four campuses statewide.
  • Neither will the 30-plus schools that make up the Minnesota State system at this time.

Why it matters: Critics of the U's policy say it could put community members and their families at risk, especially given the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant.

  • They want to see a broad requirement with weekly testing or other precautions for those who seek an exemption.
  • "The university is a place where people come from across the state, county and world [and] they mingle together in really close proximity. It's more risky when there's more cases circulating," said Dimitri Drekonja, a U of M professor and infectious disease doctor whose pro-mandate petition had collected 560 signatures as of Wednesday.

What we're hearing: A growing number of students and faculty are frustrated with the university's approach and communication about the decision. With the start of classes just a month away, some faculty concerned about the lack of a mandate are preparing to ramp up efforts to press for reversal.

  • "Public pressure could give the administration cover to alter the present policies," faculty association meeting minutes obtained by Axios read.
  • Other tactics, such as a lawsuit or work stoppage, were also floated, per the minutes, though it appears no plans are imminent.

What they're saying: President Joan Gabel cited the state's relatively high vaccination rates and input from public health experts in a June letter announcing the decision. She and allies have questioned whether a mandate would help, given that community members could still opt out.

  • "...100% vaccination rate is not possible in any situation and the most effective strategy is access and information," she wrote.
  • A spokesperson for the administration declined to comment further, but said that "public health considerations are being continually reviewed, evaluated and discussed regularly."

The big picture: Hundreds of colleges and universities across the country, including several other members of the Big Ten, have instituted vaccine mandates. Though, some are contingent on the shots securing full FDA approval.

  • Some of those that have not, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, announced new incentives and said they're exploring weekly testing requirements for the unvaccinated.

The bottom line: While the U isn't mandating the vaccine, it recently announced a mask mandate in response to Delta's spread. But some say it's not enough.

  • "Everyone is doing more than the university at this point," Drekonja said.

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