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Should colleges mandate COVID vaccines for the fall semester? | Pro/Con

A recent college graduate debates two researchers.

Masked members of the LSU marching band sit socially distanced from one another due to COVID-19 restrictions before a football game last year.
Masked members of the LSU marching band sit socially distanced from one another due to COVID-19 restrictions before a football game last year.Read moreGerald Herbert / AP

To get students back on campus amid the COVID-19 delta surge, school vaccine mandates are flooding in — and prompting a handful of lawsuits. Students have brought federal lawsuits against vaccination requirements from public universities in Indiana, Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts. Indiana University’s requirement became the first to reach the Supreme Court, and on Thursday night Justice Amy Coney Barrett declined a request to block their mandate.

Those in favor of mandates argue they are the only way to ensure in-person schooling as COVID-19 variants escalate infection risk once again. But others counter that it’s not fair to force vaccination and that a mandate may damage trust in public health. To tap this debate, The Inquirer tapped a recent University of Pennsylvania student and researchers in social work and public health: Should schools mandate vaccination for the fall semester?

» READ MORE: Community College of Philadelphia to require vaccines, the first public college in the region to do so

Yes: There’s no other way to prevent a spike in community transmission.

By Jagger Corabi

As a student at Penn who lived on campus for the 2020-21 school year despite a virtual class load, I quickly realized the risks associated with being back in a college environment. Despite it being seen as taboo to not wear masks while roaming campus, it became clear that social distancing in front of administration and faculty members was simply “performative” for those engaging in routine college activities.

That’s why I support the university’s decision to mandate vaccinations for faculty, staff, postdoctoral trainees, and students ahead of the fall semester, with exemptions only for medical or religious reasons. And I think other schools should follow suit.

The delta variant has pushed cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. to a six-month high. Delta is more contagious than prior variants among children, teens, and young adults just as it is among adults. With figures like this — and knowing that parties, social gatherings, and unregulated activity behind closed doors will remain rampant on a reopened campus — how else can the university ensure that in-class education won’t expedite COVID-19 community transmission rates when the number of people in close quarters is expected to increase dramatically?

The university’s vaccination mandate will help guarantee a smooth transition in the fall. Although there may be possible contention from those who lack confidence in the science behind the vaccine, in which 30% of Americans fall, the university has shown that it can successfully implement addendums to their vaccination requirements. Prior to the start of the last spring semester, the administration required immunization for the flu, as per the Student Campus Compact, which had previously been a recommendation.

While there has been a persisting misconception among the student body at Penn (including friends of mine) that all would be fine if everyone got COVID-19 and recovered (given the misconstrued belief that young and healthy people can’t be severely compromised), the lack of vaccinated students has the potential to harm immunocompromised peers, staff, and neighboring communities. The World Health Organization’s statement remains true: the best way to obtain herd immunity, or population immunity, is through vaccination.

“The fate and integrity of university education lie in the hands of vaccine attainment and distribution.”

Jagger Corabi

While Pennsylvania continues to demur on requiring vaccination for all its own state employees or proof of vaccination for enclosed public spaces, attorneys told CNBC in February that universities are allowed to require students to receive the vaccine in alignment with the legal policies of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Health. A federal judge already upheld Indiana University’s mandate. As such, it is in the best interest of universities to help unvaccinated students access the vaccine to satisfy their mandates while creating other safety protocols for those who are exempt due to religious and medical reasons.

As indicated by Frieden’s health impact pyramid, which is a framework for effective public health action, a mass vaccination program will primarily have a mid-level impact on population health. However, with vaccination task forces that consider the income inequity and distorted resource allocation among diverse student bodies, like Penn’s, it has the potential for the most meaningful impact by allowing low-income, underrepresented students to obtain immunity and start engaging in activities, such as job recruiting, that they have been restrained from over the past year.

The fate and integrity of university education lie in the hands of vaccine attainment and distribution. It is now up to mandates and task forces to protect our safety, well-being, and learning experience.

Jagger Corabi graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2021.

No: Mandates can harmfully politicize the issue.

By Peter A. Newman and Adrian Guta

We are two researchers with an interest in social and structural determinants of health who have been discussing and writing about the pandemic for the last 16 months.

While one of us is more supportive of mandatory vaccination on campuses, we are both nevertheless concerned about mandates.

Our shared experience in social work, public health, and ethics, including sexual health and HIV research, convinces us that mandating vaccination can risk turning a highly effective and routine public health intervention into a contentious battleground.

What otherwise might be an everyday health behavior becomes loaded with stereotypes and assumptions about political motivations that can divide communities and marginalize individuals.

Our research has shown us that reasons for engaging in practices often not condoned by health researchers and public health officials — such as sharing drug-using equipment — often are complex and make sense in the context of people’s daily realities.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s state colleges say they can’t require vaccines. Some faculty think politics are at play.

The great success of COVID-19 vaccines has led to calls to make them mandatory for health-care workers and school staff and in other public sectors.

We have personally followed public health recommendations and been vaccinated. We also recognize vaccines as the most impactful public health intervention of the last century, saving millions of lives every year.

But while everyone who lacks antibodies to new coronavirus strains is at risk, the risks of infection, morbidity, and mortality are also strongly influenced by broader sociopolitical and economic systems.

Communities that experience the brunt of systemic racism and ongoing colonization, including in health care, may be understandably reluctant or hesitant to get vaccinated — particularly Black and Indigenous communities. Some people have medical reasons to not get vaccinated, like allergies. Others may have religious reasons. Then there are those considered “anti-vaxxers,” who reject vaccinations despite evidence for their safety and efficacy.

We consider two approaches for unvaccinated young adults: mandatory vaccination and vaccine promotion.

In scenario one, postsecondary institutions view the unvaccinated as a threat — to the health and safety of themselves, other students, faculty, and staff on campus. With the rapidly spreading delta variant, the unvaccinated are at considerable risk for infection, and transmission to others. Infection clusters increase the risks of further mutations. Mandatory vaccinations might become necessary.

But is anything owed to the unvaccinated?

Many universities already adopted online learning platforms. We imagine online options being extended to all students during this transition period — free of shaming for health choices, which often backfires and intensifies people’s beliefs and resistance to change.

“Central to good public health practice, we support dialogue and community engagement.”

Peter A. Newman and Adrian Guta

Scenario two, vaccine promotion, considers the role universities have played during the pandemic: hosting vaccine clinics, offering expert advice, and promoting vaccination through evidence-based information and opportunities for peer engagement and respectful dialogue.

This approach makes vaccination readily available and gives students time to make their decision.

Scenario two creates options for diverse students, with different levels of vaccine access, to return to campus. This approach also recognizes that some students may have feared seeking vaccination in their home communities due to hostility toward those who get vaccinated.

Central to good public health practice, we support dialogue and community engagement, which our research in North America and globally has substantively supported. An important way forward is for higher education leaders to consult with students, faculty, and staff.

Universities have a short window to be proactive about the fall and winter semesters. They need to consider how to support students, faculty, and staff in recovering from this exceptionally challenging period — one that is not yet over.

Peter A. Newman is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Adrian Guta is an associate professor at the University of Windsor’s School of Social Work. They first wrote a version of this piece for the Conversation.

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