A coronavirus vaccine may help North Dakota colleges return to some form of normalcy next fall, but could students one day be required to get vaccinated for COVID-19 before entering school?
The answer isn’t so simple.
Karol Riedman, chief compliance officer for the North Dakota University System, said, while the State Board of Higher Education requires certain vaccinations for college students, it’s limited to the list of childhood vaccinations included in state law.
“We need legislative authority to go beyond that list,” said Riedman, who has been assisting to coordinate efforts of the system’s COVID-19 response.
Because required immunizations are a part of the North Dakota Century Code, any changes to that list would have to be done legislatively. Current required immunizations include tetanus, measles, hepatitis B, meningococcal disease and rotovirus, among many others. There are certain exemptions also listed in century code.
Whether the topic will come up during the North Dakota legislative session, which starts Jan. 5, remains to be seen. House Majority Leader Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said Thursday he has not had any discussions with other legislators about vaccinations for university students.
“I still hold the position that vaccinations should be voluntary, not mandatory,” he said. “If someone brings legislation forward then, of course, the topic would be discussed. But I will not be bringing anything forward.”
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, also said he would not be supportive of a vaccine mandate.
Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, noted that “required” vaccines takes on a meaning different than “mandatory” vaccines, as there is an opt-out clause that allows students to not get vaccines for certain reasons.
“At this early point in the availability of the vaccine, I would encourage students to get vaccinated if they have the opportunity, but also continue to follow CDC guidelines for the health and safety of everyone,” she said.
The same would apply to K-12 schools.
“The subject of immunization requirements is not our area of state law or expertise,” North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said in a statement.
The vaccine is not currently approved for children or for pregnant women, as they were excluded from the first vaccine trial. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said companies and U.S. regulators may be launching clinical trials with these groups early next year, CNBC reported Thursday.
The Food and Drug Administration approves a vaccine from pharmaceutical giants Pfizer for emergency use on Dec. 11. The Pfizer vaccine received initial approval from the FDA’s advisory committee on Thursday, Dec. 10. The first dosage of the vaccine was given Monday, Dec. 14 in the U.S.
Still, the vaccine likely won’t be widely available until late spring or summer, experts say. The first dosages are expected to go to health care workers and vulnerable, older adults.
Dr. Joshua Wynne, dean of the UND medical school and head of the North Dakota University System COVID-19 task force, said 50% to 70% of a campus community would need to be vaccinated or have natural immunity from the virus after contracting it in order to create a “herd immunity.”
“So even someone who is not vaccinated gets protection from those of us who are,” said Wynne, noting that it will be important for people to get the same type of vaccine when they do get the second dosage. “We really need to have the majority of people vaccinated to protect those people who choose not to, or have medical (reason) to not get vaccinated, because then they will be protected in large measure, even without the vaccine.”
NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott said he hasn’t had any direct, in-depth conversations about potentially requiring students to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in the future. He said he is advocating for vulnerable faculty and staff to get access to the vaccine.
A vaccine will be critical for getting campuses back to normal operations and events, UND President Andrew Armacost said.
“We have to have widespread vaccination. It’s a must,” he said.
Armacost said he would “love to see 100% of our students, faculty and staff vaccinated,” but noted that whether vaccinations will be mandated is still an open question. There are pros and cons of mandating vaccinations, he said, adding it’s still too early to know how those conversations will play out.