Public Health Watch: Colleges Set to Require COVID-19 Vaccine for Returning Students in the Fall

April 28, 2021
Brian P. Dunleavy

Brian P. Dunleavy has been covering health and medical research for more than 25 years, for United Press International and EverydayHealth.com, among other outlets. He is also the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition. In addition, he has written on other subjects for Biography.com, History.com, the Village Voice and amNewYork, among others. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Surveys suggest most students plan to get the shots anyway.

Colleges and universities across the United States plan to welcome students back to campus this fall—but there’s a catch: Many of them are requiring those returning to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Vaccinations are an important tool for making the fall semester safe,” Antonio Calcado, head of the COVID-19 Task Force at Rutgers University in New Jersey, reportedly the first school to mandate inoculation, told NPR recently. “We felt that just simply encouraging would not have the same effect as a requirement.”

As Robert C. Robbins, president of the University of Arizona in Tucson, among the more proactive institutions nationally in terms of pandemic response (the school’s vaccination site has delivered more than 130,000 shots), noted, getting immunized against the virus is “good public health policy.” However, not everyone is on-board.

In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 13% of adult respondents indicated they would “definitely not” get the vaccine, while 7% said they would do so only if required for work or school. An additional 17% they would “wait and see.”

Even though this ongoing survey, which began in December, has found that this vaccine “hesitancy” is on the decline since the start of the project, it still may be high enough to have an impact on campus.

Thankfully, a separate survey, published, fittingly enough, in the journal Vaccine on April 8th, revealed that 91.6% of 647 college students interviewed planned to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, they also expected only 68.2% of their peers to do so.

Of course, intentions aside, access to vaccines has, at least to date, been an issue for the college-age demographic. As the US, rightly, prioritized older adults and others considered at high risk for serious illness from the virus for shots, less than 10% of 18- to 29-year-olds nationally were fully vaccinated as of April 26th, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This will likely change by summer, as vaccines become more widely available. And it will have to, experts say, if colleges, and their students expect to have a “normal” experience this fall.

“If you attended college in 2018 during the winter and accepted the risk of death from influenza, then you should attend college in 2021 if [you’ve been] vaccinated for COVID-19,” Danny Benjamin, MD, PhD, Chair of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Pediatric Trials Network and a professor of pediatrics at Duke University told Contagion.

“All college students and staff will have more than ample opportunity to be vaccinated by July 2021,” added Dr. Benjamin, who supports vaccination requirements for in-person learning at colleges and universities. “If you and most people on campus are vaccinated, you can have a normal college experience, and a great time. If not, you risk having a college experience similar to this past year.”