A handful of colleges, mostly in the East, will require students to have received a COVID-19 vaccine shot before they return to campus in the fall. So far, the list includes Rutgers, Duke, Notre Dame, Brown and Cornell, among others.
Will that wave eventually wash into Minnesota and the Dakotas? Hopefully, but probably not.
Would it be controversial here in America’s conservative center? Oh yes, indeed it would.
But consider the comments made this week by Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway. In an interview Wednesday on CBS News, Holloway said he feels confident Rutgers is on firm legal ground for requiring the mandate, and also that the reaction from the student body has been “wholly positive.”
And, he said, “for those who simply don’t want to, the fact is there are a lot of other options for their education. I hate to say it that harshly, but that is the fact. We will have the safest possible campus.”
Remember that this is not entirely out of the ordinary. Most colleges in the nation require proof of vaccinations for historically troublesome diseases like measles, mumps and rubella. It’s tough to argue that the requirement of vaccinations has essentially cleansed the U.S. of those ailments.
In the 1960s, the prevalence of measles was approximately 3,000 people per million. After vaccines were developed and required, the prevalence fell to approximately one case per million by the year 2000. Every so often, measles makes a small and brief resurgence, but it’s almost always linked to groups that maintain anti-vaccination beliefs.
There is a difference, however, between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccines and contemporary vaccines against COVID-19. The latter are still operating on “emergency use authorization” status, while the former are not. That’s where creating requirements will get sticky for universities.
Fast-tracking a vaccine to reduce outbreaks in colleges isn’t unique. In 2015, a small meningitis outbreak occurred at the University of Oregon, leaving one dead. The university responded with a massive vaccination effort, providing thousands of students with a vaccine that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration just a few months prior.
Importantly, the universities that are implementing COVID-19 vaccine requirements generally are private, not public, colleges. And as of this week, the North Dakota University System told the Grand Forks Herald that there are no plans for requiring vaccinations.
Said Billie Jo Lorius, a spokeswoman for the NDUS: “This still has to do with the legislative authority to require vaccines for admittance to public K-12; if the vaccine is not on that list or specifically authorized through the state health officer or executive action, NDUS does not have the authority to make that requirement.”
At least at Rutgers, Holloway says he believes the university has the authority to move forward with the mandate “for the safety of the community.”
And “safety of the community” should be a paramount concern as we finally begin to move away from a year of restrictions, closures and disruption. When university students returned to campuses last fall, many communities – Grand Forks included – saw spikes in COVID-19. With a required vaccine among college students, another potential surge come August could be avoided.