Virginia colleges mull legality of mandatory COVID vaccine

Coronavirus

Virginia Tech campus. (Image courtesy of Ray Meese).

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said. 

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Rutgers University in New Jersey may have been the first to require the COVID-19 vaccination for returning fall students, according to Inside Higher Ed, a publication tracking higher education news. Since then, multiple universities have said the vaccine will be mandatory, with accommodations for documented medical or religious exemptions.

Colleges are on unfamiliar legal ground with the decision to require COVID-19 vaccinations, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Currently, Virginia colleges request documentation that a student was vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles and mumps.

Some universities in the District of Columbia and Maryland have announced a mandatory fall vaccine policy, including American, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Trinity Washington universities.

Virginia universities are still contemplating the legality of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Virginia Tech is currently thinking about this decision and our university spokespeople will keep both the campus community as well as the larger community aware of what they ultimately decide,” Lee said. 

Lee said it makes “a lot of sense to mandate the vaccine,” both from a public health and ethical perspective.

“We know that young people tend to gather and that’s what really spreads this infection,” Lee said. “In this pandemic, we have to take care of ourselves for sure, but we also have to take care of each other, and the vaccine helps us do both of those things.”

Mixed reaction to mandatory vaccine

College students across the commonwealth are making their opinions on the vaccine known, and many differ drastically. Grey Mullarkey, a communication arts major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said the vaccine should be mandatory for college students and employees.

“The only reason I think a student should not be required to have it to come back to campus is if they have an extreme allergic reaction to vaccines,” Mullarkey said. “I think that all the anti-vax propaganda and making the vaccine a political statement is dangerous and completely counterproductive.”

Mullarkey received a free COVID-19 vaccine through VCU. The process was “quick, easy, and not painful,” Mullarkey said.

VCU

Other students said the vaccine is too new to be mandatory. Dajia Perry, a psychology major at VCU, said the vaccine shouldn’t be required until it has undergone more testing.

“I feel like it’s good that we have a vaccine, but I also think the process was rushed,” Perry said. “As of right now, making it mandatory would make me more reluctant to take it because I would feel like it’s being pushed on me.”

Federal health agencies called for a pause of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this month due to reports of blood clots in some individuals who received it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA said these effects “appear to be extremely rare.” Virginia stopped administering the vaccine until the investigation is complete.

Colleges instead are offering employees and students two-dose COVID-19 vaccines. Virginia Tech had sufficient availability of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Mark Owczarski, associate vice president for university relations at Tech, stated over email.

“Virginia Tech has been working with the New River Health District to avail vaccines to all our employees and to all our students,” Owczarski stated.

Tech will continue hosting vaccination clinics until demand has been met, according to Owczarski.

VCU used its Moderna and Pfizer vaccine supply to honor J&J vaccine appointments on the day the latter vaccine was paused.

Fall transition to campus

Virginia universities are announcing a transition back to in-person classes for the fall semester. 

VCU will offer in-person and online classes. The university will cap capacity in most buildings, and require employees and students to wear masks and complete a daily health survey.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville will also return to in-person instruction. The university will provide more details about health and safety plans by July 15. 

“After a year in which the pandemic disrupted nearly everything about the UVA experience, we are eager to get back to living, learning, and working together here in Charlottesville and we know you are too,” U.Va. President Jim Ryan, Provost Liz Magill and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis wrote in a statement.

Tech is currently preparing for a fully in-person fall semester. President Tim Sands stated last month that he is hopeful for a “pre-pandemic experience.”

Many college students are also hopeful for a return to an in-person, college experience. Greta Roberson, a student and employee at George Mason University in Fairfax, said that she and her fellow coworkers were excited about the vaccine and were among the first at Mason to get vaccinated.

“George Mason is pretty liberal and open-minded, so I think the vaccine is a welcome thing for the Mason community,” Roberson said.

Mason plans to offer at least 75% of instruction on campus and to expand residence hall capacity to “near-normal levels.” Masks and testing will still be required until public health guidance changes. 

Forty percent of Virginians have been vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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