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Vaccinated vs. unvaccinated roommates: As college students move in, some parents and students have concerns

Local universities aren't accommodating demands for vaccinated roommates, but are allowing students unhappy with their matches to seek room changes.

Jonna and daughter Isabella DeSilva (right) from the Wilkes-Barre area, on move-in day. She is an freshman. Both are glad that Isabella's roommates are vaccinated.
Jonna and daughter Isabella DeSilva (right) from the Wilkes-Barre area, on move-in day. She is an freshman. Both are glad that Isabella's roommates are vaccinated.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The son of a school administrator from Media was excited to start classes at Millersville University, until he learned that a roommate hadn’t been vaccinated and didn’t plan on it.

So he asked the university in Lancaster County for a vaccinated roommate, which it said it couldn’t guarantee but assigned him to another room, according to his father, who asked that their names not be published for fear of backlash. That roommate also turned out to be unvaccinated. So the university offered a private room in an area with upperclassmen, but the father said at that point his son withdrew and enrolled at a private university in New York that has a vaccine mandate for students.

“We thought we had no choice,” the father said. “We had to go somewhere else. That’s what the last year and a half has been about, trying to protect ourselves.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania's state colleges say they can't require COVID-19 vaccines

Millersville is one of 14 state universities in Pennsylvania, which say they do not have the legal authority to mandate the vaccine. Millersville is requiring students to show proof of vaccination or submit a negative COVID-19 test to move into their dorms.

Other area universities said that they also have received requests from parents of vaccinated students to have their children with the same but that the number has been low. For the most part, they are telling students they must go through the same process for a roommate change as those who want them for other reasons.

“For those students who have expressed concerns, we have encouraged them to talk with their roommates about how they will address the issue,” said Temple University spokesperson Steve Orbanek. “Any student who wishes to make room changes will be able to do so when the room change process opens at the beginning of September.”

Orbanek said Temple is not housing unvaccinated students together.

“Our best guidance from our medical professionals, taking into account CDC guidelines, is that housing unvaccinated students together in one setting could increase the chances of an outbreak should an individual test positive for COVID-19,” he said. “Also, from an equity and inclusion perspective, we are concerned that housing unvaccinated students in separate spaces could stigmatize that population.”

The American College Health Association isn’t recommending that vaccinated and unvaccinated students be housed separately either.

“It’s safer to mix the populations than it is to segregate a whole residence hall or even a whole entire floor filled with unvaccinated students, unless you could keep everybody in a bubble, which we know is impossible on a college campus,” said Dr. Jean E. Chin, associate professor of medicine at the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership and former cochair of the association’s COVID-19 task force. “Otherwise there’s going to be an explosion of cases, if one student in that unvaccinated population comes back into that unvaccinated residence hall.”

» READ MORE: The vaccination debate on college campuses. A mandate or not?

Temple initially wasn’t requiring that students have the COVID-19 vaccine, but the City of Philadelphia has since mandated it, except for those with medical or religious exemptions. Students have until Oct. 15 to comply. Orbanek noted that more than three-quarters of students living on campus already have submitted proof of vaccination.

That includes Liam Cunningham, 18, of Narberth. He said he planned to ask his roommates if they are vaccinated, and if they aren’t, he may ask for a room change.

“It would make me feel safer to be in a condensed space with people who are vaccinated,” the computer-science major said as he and his mother, Amanda, unloaded their car Friday outside his dorm.

His mother wasn’t overly concerned about the roommates’ status.

“The likelihood of him getting sick to the point of having to be hospitalized at his age with a vaccination is so minimal that it’s probably more dangerous going to a fraternity party,” she said.

Vidya Bakthi, 18, a freshman from Allentown, said he’s vaccinated, but wasn’t concerned about his roommate’s status and didn’t know it.

“I’m assuming everything is going to be OK,” he said.

Mark and Jonna DeSilva and their daughter Isabella said it was important to them that she be in a room with vaccinated roommates, and she will be.

“We want to know that she’s going to be safe,” said Mark DeSilva, a pastor from the Wilkes-Barre area. “We’re all vaccinated. We believe that to show love to our neighbor, we should be vaccinated, in order to do what’s best for our country right now in this time of crisis.”

Jeff Walker, parent of a student from Toms River, N.J., said it was also important to him that his daughter have a vaccinated roommate.

“The more people who are vaccinated, the better this will be,” he said.

Health officials said they understand parents’ and students’ concerns about wanting a vaccinated roommate and said it would be far better if everyone was vaccinated.

But Dr. Manish Trivedi, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases for AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in New Jersey, said vaccinated students largely are well-protected against the virus, though they can still spread it. If they do get sick, it’s unlikely they will become severely ill, especially in their age group, though the “risk is not absolute zero,” he said. The hospital has admitted vaccinated patients, but most of them were immune-suppressed or had repeated high-risk exposure, he said.

It’s the unvaccinated ones who need to worry far more, especially with the highly transmissible delta variant, he said.

Some campuses, like the University of Georgia, a public institution, can’t even require students to disclose if they are vaccinated, Chin noted.

Pennsylvania State University, which is not mandating the vaccine but requiring regular COVID-19 testing for those who don’t have it, said students were encouraged to reach out and get to know their roommates, including having discussions about vaccination, before they arrived on campus. The university started the move-in process last week.

» READ MORE: Penn State faculty push for mandatory vaccinations

“Students may look to switch roommates for a variety of reasons, which this year may include COVID-19 vaccination status,” the university said, noting that it has a roommate exchange site to facilitate switches, but also helps students who can’t find a resolution there.

At West Chester, a state university, students can request a roommate or be assigned one through the compatibility software that among other questions this year asked about their comfort level with COVID-19, a university spokesperson said. Once the semester begins, students will talk with residence life staff about their values in areas such as wearing masks and will be able to request a room change.

» READ MORE: West Chester will randomly test students who don't submit proof of vaccination

It’s easier for universities requiring the vaccine with limited medical and religious exemptions. Villanova said nearly 94% of students and more than 95% of faculty are fully vaccinated, and that number will increase because some are partially vaccinated. Still, the school got a few calls from parents wanting a guarantee and students were encouraged to talk to the roommate, said spokesperson Jonathan Gust.

Rowan University in New Jersey will allow students to change roommates if there is room available, said spokesperson Joe Cardona. But the school generally is not accommodating requests for vaccinated roommates, because it would violate student privacy, he said.

Nearly 90% of students living in residence halls have either submitted proof of vaccination or a form for exemption. Of those, 85% are vaccinated. Rowan allows exemptions for religious, medical, or personal reasons. But the university will no longer honor the personal exemptions once at least one vaccine receives full approval, Cardona said.

At Millersville, university officials were told they could not ask students if they were vaccinated before move-in day, said spokesperson Janet Kacskos.

But the university did try to accommodate the Media family, she said, noting the offer of the private room or remote classes.

The father said all his son wanted was a vaccinated roommate.

“They said they couldn’t guarantee it,” he said. “We’re glad we found a school that did.”