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Vaccinate U? Contrary To Health Advice, Most Area Schools Won’t Mandate COVID Vaccine

The University of Kentucky campus in Lexington.
Corinne Boyer
The University of Kentucky campus in Lexington.

Roughly a million students attend college around the Ohio Valley, and the student-age population has an especially high rate of coronavirus infection. That’s why some public health advocates say schools should require that students be vaccinated. 

However, a review by the Ohio Valley ReSource found that of 400 colleges and universities in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, only three have indicated that they will mandate COVID-19 vaccinations this fall.

The age group with the highest share of COVID-19 infections is under 30. About a fifth of all U.S. cases have occurred in people ages 18 to 29. In late April the American College Health Association, an organization that works to improve the health of college students and college campuses, recommended that schools make COVID-19 immunization mandatory for students. 

Despite that recommendation and the number of infections among college-aged people, the ReSource found that most colleges and universities in the Ohio Valley prefer a voluntary approach to the vaccine. 

In early May, students on the University of Kentucky campus talked about getting the vaccine and what they thought about the university’s decision not to require it.

“I haven’t gotten it yet. I was a little skeptical just because, you know, it was so new, happened so fast. I do plan on getting it after doing more research,” Brandy Jackson said. 

About 60% of the university’s 30,000 or so students have gotten the vaccine, according to school data. A few conversations with students indicate most of them agree with the university. 

“I think it’s up to a person’s own discretion,” student Abou Toure said. “I’d rather people get vaccinated, if not then it’s not a big deal, it’s not going to affect me if I’m vaccinated.” 

Yasmin Ogundepo, another UK student, said, “I feel like it’s a good decision just because it gives students the liberty to make their own choices. I feel like the most important thing during our college time is to be able to make our own political views and build them.”

Those student views reflect the approach that most colleges and universities around the region are taking. However, the ReSource found a few schools taking a firmer stance on vaccinations — a position more in line with what public health advocates recommend.  

Vaccine Required

Less than an hour’s drive to the south of the University of Kentucky campus, officials at Berea College have reached a different conclusion about vaccinations.

Berea, a private liberal arts institution with about 1,700 students, is among only three schools in the region the ReSource found that will be requiring the vaccine for students living and studying on campus. 

Berea College President Lyle Roelofs said the decision is rooted in science, and what it tells us about risk.

“A person who is vaccinated, according to the US protocols, has a 95% chance of being protected from symptomatic infection and a 90% chance of being protected against asymptomatic infection. That means that an unvaccinated person is 10 times more dangerous, or between 10 and 20 times more dangerous, to an unvaccinated person,” Roelofs said. 

“For that reason, we decided to require at least that all of our students on campus would be vaccinated and have as safe a community as possible for those who are not able to be vaccinated.”

Roelofs said that at first, the policy Berea put in place regarding a COVID vaccine requirement was not well-received. 

“We initially decided that we would try to have two independent communities on campus. One, the fully vaccinated community, and then a rather separated group of unvaccinated students living in designated residence halls, not being able to participate in in-person activities like going to the dining hall for meals,” Roelofs explained. 

But with vaccinated and non-vaccinated students separated, Berea would have been divided, with one privileged group enjoying more freedom and another denied a normal campus life. Roelofs said it was an honest but flawed attempt at vaccinations, one they abandoned in favor of a broader mandate. 

“It looked horrible to us in hindsight, so we eliminated that second community on campus and said we'll accommodate some of their academic needs through remote learning.”

Kenyon College, a private school in Gambier, Ohio, will require the vaccination for students in the fall, as will Cleveland State University, a public institution.

Dave Kielmeyer, Cleveland State’s interim vice president for marketing and communications, said in an email that the requirement will only apply to students who will be living on campus. 

“We have yet to fully build out our protocols on the ‘how’ yet in terms of documentation, possible exemptions, etc.,” he wrote.

All three schools have vaccination exemptions for students who don’t want or can’t take the vaccine because of medical or religious reasons. 

Public Health Perspective

Anita Barkin, with the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, said it’s still early and schools are still making decisions about whether to require the COVID-19 vaccine. However, Barkin said without the vaccine requirement, there’s concern more outbreaks will plague on-campus housing. 

“It becomes more problematic when you have close living quarters. And that's why, you know, the safest path to residence hall living is to have a highly vaccinated population,” she said.

Barkin said that’s why many schools routinely require vaccination against a number of infectious diseases.

“Requirements against vaccine-preventable diseases have been a highly successful, time-tested strategy for insuring against outbreaks of these diseases on college campuses,” Barkin explained. 

Most schools require international students, or in some cases all their students, to get vaccinations for hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella and polio among others.

For example, the Ohio Valley’s largest university, Ohio State University, tells its roughly 61,000 students “vaccination requirement must be completed prior to the start of the student's first semester,” for about eight infectious diseases, according to an announcement on its website. If students fail to do so, their university accounts might be placed on hold. 

However, COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory for OSU students, the university told the ReSource.

The American Council on Education explains that higher education institutions would likely be on firm legal ground if they mandated COVID-19 vaccinations under the existing flu vaccine requirements. 

“The legal right of institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination for students seems likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases,” it said in a statement. “In this regard, mandated COVID-19 vaccinations may align with existing flu vaccine requirements for students on a number of campuses from coast to coast.”

Other Measures

Most universities in the Ohio Valley are relying on testing, contact tracing, quarantining infected students, and setting up travel restrictions based on guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some are offering students an option to attend online classes while others have set up vaccination sites on campuses to encourage students to get their shots. 

In its “Return to Campus” draft, West Virginia University, the state’s largest school with around 26,000 students, said that vaccinated students will not be required to undergo “campus re-entry testing or surveillance testing” for fall 2021 or wouldn’t need to quarantine if exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Although the university hasn’t made COVID-19 vaccination mandatory yet, officials said that they may consider making that a requirement when the Food and Drug Administration expands the Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Several schools around the region are tracking the number of vaccinated students. Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, has created a register to determine the level of immunity on campus. Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, asked its members to “email a picture of your proof of vaccination to the COVID support team” so that the university could “concentrate” on asymptomatic tests for students that have not yet received a vaccination.

Ohio Valley colleges have been allocated at least $1.78 billion under the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, according to a U.S. Senate estimate. That would provide financial assistance to students and cover other costs and would help continue their education during the pandemic, including testing, contact tracing and vaccinations. While $1.14 billion was allocated to Ohio’s higher education schools, Kentucky’s colleges received over $450 million and West Virginia’s about $192 million.

The University of Cincinnati is among the institutions with on-campus vaccine clinics, but vaccination is not mandatory for students. The university said on its website that it “strongly recommends COVID-19 vaccination but will not mandate COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty or staff for the coming academic year.”

University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said about 80% of faculty have been vaccinated and that mandating the vaccine isn’t necessary yet. As far as students returning to on-campus living, Blanton said the university reduced the number of beds used last fall.

“We have a capacity of about 7500 beds on our campus, but we actually only utilized about 6500 of them,” he said. “So that allowed everyone to have a private bedroom and no more than two people sharing a bathroom. We don't have community baths in any of our residence halls anymore.”

The University of Louisville won’t require the shot. University President Dr. Neeli Bendapudi recently said the university is looking at what the institution can and cannot do. 

“As much as we can encourage people to take them, that's what we would like to do,” Bendapudi said. 

Eastern Kentucky University Vice President of Public Safety Bryan Makinen said the university encourages students to get vaccinated. But he said there are several reasons the shot won’t be required. 

“It's treated much in the same regard as the influenza vaccination, which is a personal choice to get the vaccination annually or not. Now as the research unfolds, and as time goes on, if it's determined that COVID-19 be treated more along the lines, such as measles, mumps, rubella, or what we affectionately refer to as the MMR vaccine, or the varicella vaccine for chickenpox, we'll certainly address that at that time,” Makinen explained. 

At Western Kentucky University, Media Relations Director Bob Skipper said that for the most part, vaccines aren’t required on campus, and he said the emergency nature of the COVID vaccine authorization is another factor in the school’s decision.  

“The vaccines have been approved for use under an emergency authorization through the Food and Drug Administration. And we just feel that making a requirement out of that is a bit of a stretch, since these have only been authorized for emergency use,” he said. 

According to the CDC, all three approved vaccines underwent a “rigorous” evaluation process in which the regulator concluded that the potential benefits outweigh potential risks. Also, there is mounting evidence that the vaccines are effective and that safety risks are minimal. 

Undecided Universities

Several universities in the Ohio Valley have not yet made a decision on whether to require the vaccination for the fall. These include Capital University, University of Northwestern Ohio, and Ohio Northern University. 

Many are waiting to see what happens on the state and federal levels in terms of vaccine requirements. 

Joy Brown, the associate director of media relations at Ohio Northern University, said they’ve been trying to gauge campus interest in the vaccine.

“Certainly everybody’s watching everybody else to see what they’re gonna say or do,” Brown said. “So you know, we’re all winging it.”

As the spring semester wraps up, universities in the Ohio Valley already have plans in place to return to normal in-person class schedules in the fall, and most have emergency plans in place for possible outbreaks.  

University of Kentucky student Ellie Browning, who got the vaccine last month, said the school should change its decision on requiring the vaccine if the vaccination rate among students doesn't increase. 

“If God forbid we had another wave that was really bad here and we had to get sent home again, you know, if they closed in-person classes. That’s expensive for a lot of us — it kind of ruins the college experience,” she said. “And for me, like I pay a lot to go here.”

ReSource reporter Liam Niemeyer contributed to this report. 

The Ohio Valley ReSource gets support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations.

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