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Colleges weigh mandating booster shots as COVID-19 cases surge

At many colleges, the vast majority of students and staff are vaccinated, but with Delta still circulating and the arrival of Omicron, health officials are recommending boosters for those over 18.

Haverford College Campus on April 13, 2021.
Haverford College Campus on April 13, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

As COVID-19 cases climb locally and nationally, many colleges are considering mandating booster shots and other restrictions before students and faculty return in the new year. Some have even taken steps in the waning days of the current semester, moving to remote exams, canceling in-person functions, and adding booster clinics.

Haverford College became among the first in the region to require all eligible students and staff to have the COVID-19 booster to return to campus after the holiday break. Students must upload their cards by Jan. 18, the first day of classes, or within two weeks of when they become eligible for the booster.

“Our infectious disease advisers have been clear and convincing about the value of boosters in reducing the transmission and severity of COVID,” president Wendy Raymond wrote to the campus Tuesday.

Like most colleges in the region, Haverford had already required that students and staff without approved exemptions be vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall. And nearly every student and staff member is.

» READ MORE: Rutgers becomes first college in the region, possibly the nation, to require students to get COVID-19 vaccinations (from March 2021)

But with delta still circulating and the arrival of omicron, coronavirus cases are again surging around the region and the country, and health officials are urging more steps to stop a crippling wave. That includes a booster shot for anyone six months past their last Pfizer or Moderna shot or two months past the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Harvard University announced Saturday it will move to remote learning for the first three weeks in January “prompted by the rapid rise in COVID-19 ... as well as the growing presence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.”

Princeton has announced it would mandate students and staff get the booster by Jan. 31. And the University of Delaware on Thursday said it would require its students to get the shot, as did Bryn Mawr College. Other colleges in the region have not made a decision, but several, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and La Salle, said they are considering it. Swarthmore College president Valerie Smith said her campus expects to announce a requirement soon.

But other colleges, including Rutgers, said they had no plans to require boosters. That’s even though Rutgers in March was the first university in the region, and possibly the nation, to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall.

“We encourage everyone to take advantage of booster shots as a way of increasing their personal protection against the virus,” said Dory Devlin, a university spokesperson.

Rutgers’ faculty union wanted a more forceful response. On Thursday, its executive council called on the university to require the boosters, among several other mitigation steps. “A main lesson of the pandemic is that urgent, rapid and mitigative action is critical,” it said in a statement.

Colleges that haven’t required boosters have still been strongly encouraging them, even sponsoring clinics on campus to make it easy. Drexel held four booster clinics before winter break, double what it planned because the demand was so high, said spokesperson Niki Gianakaris. More than 2,500 students got shots, she said.

And although Philadelphia earlier this year mandated vaccinations for students and staff at colleges in the city, it has no plans to require boosters.

» READ MORE: Penn bans indoor social gatherings amid rising COVID-19 cases

“We’re still trying to get folks to get fully vaccinated,” said James Garrow, a health department spokesperson. “It’s possible, in the future, that we’ll have more rules on boosters, but at this point, only 170,000 or so Philadelphians have received them according to our records.”

The city’s earlier mandate caused Temple University to require the shots; it had only been strongly encouraging them. More than 97% of students and staff are now vaccinated, but it will wait to follow the city’s guidance on boosters, spokesperson Steve Orbanek said Thursday.

» READ MORE: Health-care and higher education workers, students must get vaccinated by mid-October, Philadelphia announces (from August 2021)

Temple reported 68 active cases on its dashboard on Thursday, for a 2% positivity rate, below the city’s 4.8%.

» READ MORE: Free tuition anyone? What local universities are doing to entice or punish students around COVID-19 protocols

Beyond boosters, schools have taken other steps. Penn announced Wednesday that no final exams would be held in person next week. Professors are being asked to use alternative final assessments. Earlier this month, Penn issued a ban on indoor social gatherings. It came after Penn officials reported 133 COVID-19 cases in the span of three days, compared with 120 the entire prior week.

Princeton also moved all final exams to a remote format, starting Thursday, and canceled indoor gatherings where face coverings can’t be worn.

“Given that we’ve seen an uptick in cases among undergraduates during the last 24 hours — including suspected cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant — we hope to avoid letting the final exam schedule interfere with students’ travel home for Winter Break,” Princeton officials said in a message to the campus.

But no area schools were as affected as Cornell, which banned campus activities Tuesday and moved final exams online after 700 students tested positive over three days.

Most schools have already completed the fall semester and many students have gone home.

At Haverford, which ended its semester Friday, more than 99.6% of students and 97.5% of staff are vaccinated. Still, the 1,300-student college saw 30 students test positive for the virus over the course of the semester and a dozen staff. None got seriously ill, its president said. The school has continued to require testing and masks, except in dining halls and students’ own residence halls.

Raymond, a molecular biologist, said adding a booster was a “no-brainer.” The booster has proven to be more effective against delta and early data show the booster enhances the vaccine’s effectiveness against omicron, she said.

She is optimistic about the next semester, given how well things went this fall.

“We’ve been forward-thinking,” she said. “We’ve been careful and caring and we’ve been fortunate.”