UND is working to obtain a number of Johnson & Johnson vaccines for students before the end of the school year.

The university has been speaking with local health officials about potentially setting aside a certain number of doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine specifically for students. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only one-shot vaccine approved for emergency use in the United States at this time.

UND President Andrew Armacost said the one-shot vaccine would be most convenient for students because as the end of the school year approaches, students could potentially leave campus and Grand Forks before they could get the second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

“The request to use the single dose Johnson & Johnson was really based upon the simple logistics of trying to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible, but recognizing that vaccinations might span the time at which students would depart from the campus,” he said.

No plans had been finalized as of Friday, March 26.

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The vaccinations are moving faster than the North Dakota University System expected. North Dakota announced earlier this month that anyone over the age of 16 will be able to sign up to get the vaccine beginning March 29. This is to include university students.

The university sent a survey to students at the beginning of last week asking if they would be interested in getting vaccinated. As of Thursday night, more than 900 had responded, expressing interest, according to Meloney Linder, vice president for marketing and communications. Linder noted that there may be more students who are interested and had not yet responded to the survey. Additionally, because some student workers qualified during earlier phases, there is likely a portion of the student population that already has been vaccinated.

The university is not allowed to ask students if they have been vaccinated and it cannot mandate that students be vaccinated, since that is private health information. The same rule applies to faculty and staff.

“Our efforts are going to be in encouraging and broadcasting the importance of individuals going to get vaccinated,” Armacost said.

During a State Board of Higher Education meeting Thursday, Dr. Joshua Wynne, UND medical school dean who also oversees the North Dakota University System’s response to the pandemic, said there is “great interest” among students, faculty and staff about vaccinations.

But even if more individuals can be vaccinated, UND is sticking with its planned virtual commencement ceremony for the spring, Armacost said. It will continue with some in-person aspects of the ceremony, including students receiving their diplomas and meeting with Armacost, if they have signed up for this. However, at this point, Armacost said it would be too late to change plans due to contracts and other logistics.

“Our plans are firm,” he said. “To change from that plan is an impossibility at this point.”

The university made the decision to hold a virtual ceremony in order to protect the campus community, he said.

The decision, Armacost said, was not a financial one.

“The decision about commencement, and any of the events that we're holding, has nothing to do with finance, and everything to do with health and safety,” he said. “If we're executing a university-sponsored commencement ceremony, it requires the placement of key staff and faculty members into positions that would put them at risk, and that's a risk that we decided, early on, we did not want to take.”

While there has been a limited number of fans at UND hockey and football games this year, Linder noted that those crowds are logistically easier to deal with because there are a certain number of tickets and people generally stay in the same place without gathering close together.

“We put a lot of hard thought into if we were to be in person, how do you monitor the social distancing that would be required to keep everybody safe, not knowing who's been vaccinated, who hasn't? Who's high risk, who's not?” she said. “There's hugs, there's tons of pictures that are being taken, family members want to congregate around. And it's just a different environment than what you might see at a sporting event.”

University leaders are still being vigilant about case numbers and positivity rates, both locally and nationally, Armacost said.