University officials reportedly fear political retribution if they require COVID-19 vaccination

By: - August 11, 2021 12:50 am

Graduating college students. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

Earlier this month, when a federal judge upheld Indiana University’s requirement that students and staff members can be required by the school to be vaccinated for coronavirus this fall, there was an odd Ohio college link. It had to do with how this student vaccination issue had become more politically divisive than most have ever seen.

What the court ruling did was allow a public university system in a Republican state like Indiana to require vaccination of its students. According to The Chronicle’s tracker of vaccine mandates, that made the nine-campus Indiana University system and Ohio’s Cleveland State University as national outliers, being the only public universities requiring vaccination of their students that are located in states that voted last year to reelect Donald J. Trump as president.

Dive down a little further and the disparity gets more obvious. Of the 246 public campuses that have issued vaccination requirements, 236 are in blue states that voted for current President Joe Biden, and 10 are the Indiana state schools and Cleveland State. There are about a total of 750 public higher education schools in the Unites States.

This raises all sorts of issues that the academic and political interests are tending to avoid. One is that most higher education institution require vaccination for a myriad of other health care problematic areas, but not for COVID-19, which has caused more than 600,000 deaths in the U.S. so far.

For example, Ohio State University requires students show proof of vaccination for hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, meningococcal conjugate (ACWY), polio, tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis and varicella to enroll at the school. As far as vaccination for COVOD-19, however, there is no requirement. 

The Ohio Union at Ohio State University. Photo from Google Maps.

Classes begin on Aug. 24 and Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson says most students will be vaccinated by choice from the students. But they are basing that on the results of student surveys, not students showing the school proof of vaccinations.

“The reason we’re doing it, we don’t use the information or communicate the information, but it will help us know if there is an outbreak,” she said in a recent TV interview. “Then we will be able to understand how that relates to the population of unvaccinated individuals

But she added that “It’s not mandatory … We’re requiring it, but there’s no penalty if you don’t report.”

Why requiring vaccination for polio but not for COVID-19? It is a question that the school administrations and political leadership have mostly avoided answering.  But in the well-regarded American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine at the end of July, Holden Thorp, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina, didn’t mince any words in explaining his version of why schools are reluctant to require vaccinations of their students for COVID-19.

“I wrote to several (North Carolina) higher education administrators and local government officials to ask their opinion about vaccine mandates,” Thorp wrote. “Although they privately agreed that every college should require mandates, no one was willing to say so on the record. They were all worried that Republican legislators will punish the universities if they come out swinging. Like other measures to limit academic freedom and circumvent faculty expertise, this is another example of politicians and politically appointed trustees overreaching their appropriate roles in higher education policy.

“Officials at universities and in government need to take a stand regardless of the political consequences for the institutions. Lives are at stake.”

The reasons for such a strong statement are because of the new infection and deaths data coming from the delta variant likely this fall when school starts. It preys on, and the infection is passed along through the unvaccinated. Nationally, young adults age 18 to 29 have the lowest COVID vaccination rates of any adults. That means close to 650,000 students in Ohio at four-year schools could be required to be vaccinated (with some exemptions for religious and health reasons) as other states are doing. 

Photo of vaccination by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images.

When comparing other states, the differences are huge. In Ohio, just six schools (Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, College of Wooster, and Mount Saint Joseph University ) are requiring vaccinations of students.

In Virginia (considered a “blue” state), the latest count has 25 schools requiring vaccinations, including big public universities like the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth, VA Tech and Old Dominion. That equals about 375,000 students going to college in Virginia this fall that will have to be vaccinated to enroll, and that equates to about 63% of the state’s total enrollment.

As of now, according to the latest projections, only 40% of Ohioans age 20-29 are vaccinated and some colleges fear that without the vaccine, college campuses campuses could be dangerous spots this fall. 

“Our education is rooted in having people together, in intimate settings, in the classroom, in laboratories,” said Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan University said recently. “We know that there’s a group of students who have not been vaccinated who are now choosing to be vaccinated because they want to have this experience on campus this year,” Jones said.

“We understand that some will decide not to be with us because of that. We regret their decision, but we believe that our decision is based on the best medical science and evidence.”

What is playing out is that there is still some ambiguity at this time as to what is legal and what is not concerning a state’s ability to ban universities from requiring proof of vaccination to enroll. Ohio recently passed into law House Bill 244 prohibiting Ohio public colleges from requiring students to be vaccinated without full approval of the vaccinations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The new state law doesn’t go into effect until Oct. 12, and Cleveland State University says that means it can still require students who return to campus on Aug. 16 to be fully vaccinated. The FDA will likely have approved the vaccinations by October, making some of this law a moot point and mostly posturing in nature.

In a statement issued last week by the American College Health Association and signed by more than two dozen higher education organizations, actions like Ohio’s new state law on this matter was clearly pointed out as dangerous policy: “State actions that prevent the use of established and effective public health tools at the same time as COVID-19 cases increase is a recipe for disaster,” the statement said.

“These restrictions undermine the ability of all organizations, including colleges and universities, to operate safely and fully at a time of tremendous unpredictability,” the ACHA continued. “Furthermore, these restrictions prohibit higher education institutions from taking responsible and reasonable public health measures and ultimately threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities.”

But it seems obvious that lots of posturing is going on by both sides on this issue. Looking at the map produced by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the states that are requiring most of the required vaccination are in New York, California and other coastal states. The states having fewer schools requiring vaccination are in the red states in the center of the country.

A total of about 660 four-year universities and colleges (both public and private) have some vaccination requirement of their students for this fall according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. There are a total of about 2,500 four-year universities nationwide.

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health, during a press conference on new school guidelines regarding COVID-19. Screenshot by Susan Tebben

In Ohio, there are 14 public universities in the state, with an annual enrollment of close to 300,000, and only Cleveland State University (with an enrollment of about 16,000) has required testing in place. 

Part of the reasoning for that is that schools are hesitant to get involved given legal and political issues at play: “The law is a little bit evolving, especially because most of these universities and colleges do take some sort of state money,” said Carmel Shachar, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School in a recent interview. “So that’s a lever for state governments to say, ‘if you want to continue to receive this funding, you can’t require students to get this vaccine.'”

The health issue experts think it is quite simple, however. “Like everything in life, this is an ongoing risk assessment,” says Dr. Inci Yildirim, of the Yale School of Medicine. “If it is sunny and you’ll be outdoors, you put on sunscreen. If you are in a crowded gathering, potentially with unvaccinated people, you put your mask on and keep social distancing. If you are unvaccinated and eligible for the vaccine, the best thing you can do is to get vaccinated.”

Ohio is very divided on this, with medical professionals and elected political leaders taking very different views. In recent interviews, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, medical director for the state health department has expressed some of his frustration. “The reality is we now have two Ohios,” he said. “An Ohio that is vaccinated and protected on the one hand and an Ohio that is unvaccinated and vulnerable to delta on the other.”

“It is really now just a matter of time,” he continued. “It is when, not if, an unvaccinated individual develops COVID-19.”

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Daniel McGraw
Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a book author and freelance journalist in Lakewood, OH. He has written for The Bulwark, POLITICO, Next City, Daily Beast, and many others. Follow him @danmcgraw1.

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