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It's watch and wait at UND, as legal challenges mount to vaccine mandate

UND President Andrew Armacost and several other senior administrators held an informational meeting on Thursday, Dec. 2, to answer employees’ questions about the mandate, as well as lay out how it will go into effect, should a federal court not level an injunction against the mandate for federal contractors.

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UND administrators have laid the groundwork for requiring employees to follow a federal coronavirus vaccine mandate, but uncertainty remains in the face of multiple legal challenges.

UND President Andrew Armacost and several other senior administrators held an informational meeting on Thursday, Dec. 2, to answer employees’ questions about the mandate, as well as lay out how it will go into effect, should a federal court not level an injunction against the mandate for federal contractors. UND has about $110 million in such contracts, two of which may soon be signed, Armacost said. More contracts are expected to follow.

University leaders are carefully watching court cases around the country, but are prepared to roll out a mandate if required. Armacost said more information is expected to come to light sometime mid-next week, but he acknowledged the ambiguity surrounding required vaccinations.

“My point in bringing up this spaghetti-mess of legal issues and guidance is that there's a lot of uncertainty,” Armacost said. “Our approach at UND has been to take a cautious approach in terms of rolling out the mandate.”

There are multiple federal vaccine mandates for people, including health care workers, businesses with more than 100 employees and employees of federal contractors. There is also a patchwork of court injunctions against those mandates across the country.

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Charlie Gorecki, CEO of the Energy and Environmental Research Center, has been tracking those court cases. At Thursday’s meeting, he said a recent injunction against the federal contractor mandate was recently handed down for the states of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. That injunction may be a likely indicator of where the state of North Dakota will end up, he said.

North Dakota has joined a similar lawsuit, which will be heard in a federal court in Missouri. According to Gorecki, word of a similar injunction could come as soon as Dec. 8, if not before.

Given the uncertainty of challenges to the mandate, Jed Shivers, vice president for finance and operations, said no announcement of who must get vaccinated could come at Thursday's meeting, even if some employees were expecting it.

“I think the point here is it's a very fluid, dynamic situation,” Shivers said.

UND has created a website for employees, to upload their vaccine status, should it be required. That website is not yet live. School administrators said information uploaded there would be protected and private, and information would only remain in the system for two days, so it can be verified.

Those who have been vaccinated in North Dakota or Minnesota won’t need to upload their status. Once an employee deemed to fall under the mandate has been identified, UND staff working in a health-related capacity will be able to get their vaccination status from the relevant state agencies. Peggy Varberg, associate vice president of human resources, said UND cannot view an employee’s private medical information beyond vaccine status.

“As far as other medical information for faculty and staff, we don't have access to that,” she said.

At present, no UND employee has been required to verify their vaccine status.

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An employee at Thursday’s meeting wondered if non-compliance with the mandate could lead to progressive disciplinary measures. Shivers said administrators would work with them to understand the necessity of compliance, and there is no “hard and fast line” that determines when an employee would be terminated for not getting the shots.

Employees also have the option to apply for medical and religious exemptions, Shivers said, and added that there is no way to “test out” of the federal contractor mandate, should it be found legal.

But questions at Thursday’s meeting, while mostly relating to a potential vaccine mandate, also veered to UND’s mask mandate. Beth Hellwig, interim vice president for student affairs, said it can be difficult seeing large groups of students in the Memorial Union not wearing masks. She said she supported politely reminding people of the policy.

Both Armacost and Provost Eric Link agreed. Link said UND's approach has been to positively encourage following the mandate, and that doing so should not devolve into a clash between viewpoints.

“We don't want to, for the sake of health and safety, turn a moment of positive counseling into a moment of confrontation,” Link said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

Desk: 701-780-1110
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