Editor’s note: The University of Colorado system announced on the afternoon of April 28, 2021 — hours after this commentary published — that it would require all students, faculty and staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before the 2021 fall semester, as columnist Trish Zornio called for in the below commentary. CU was joined by the Colorado State University System, University of Northern Colorado, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Fort Lewis College in making the announcement and issuing the vaccine requirement.
Vaccines work, but only if we use them.
With the fourth wave of COVID-19 well underway, University of Colorado administrators have spent months alerting faculty of plans to resume in-person classes this fall. Despite many precautions having been discussed, one cornerstone of recovery has remained noticeably absent: The state’s flagship university campuses have yet to join the over 80 academic institutions that will require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Interestingly, at least three higher education institutions in Colorado have already announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, beating CU to the punch. These include Fort Lewis College, the University of Denver and Colorado College. Nationwide, multiple state-funded universities also already required the mandate, another sign CU is lagging.
The decisions to require vaccination are not unexpected. Immunizations have long been required to attend academic campuses for all ages. Such vaccine requirements are already adhered to by the University of Colorado campuses for any student enrolled in at least one course for in-person learning.
Specifically, according to current state law, all incoming college students are required to provide documentation of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or alternatively a series of positive titers for each disease per laboratory confirmation. In lieu of these documentations, students may file for medical or nonmedical exemption if they meet criteria, an admittedly easy out for those willing to work for it. However, there is a notable caveat that during disease outbreaks these exemptions are no longer recognized.
Similar policy for COVID-19 is a logical next step, particularly as we remain in an active outbreak. This means exemptions should not be accepted for in-person study until active outbreaks are resolved. COVID-19 vaccinations should also be similarly required for faculty and staff, however in the digital age it’s critical to note this needn’t be a barrier to exclude students or faculty from online participation. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that online learning is a functional modality.
The reasons for a vaccine mandate are abundantly clear, both from a campus and societal perspective. Without a mandate, teaching faculty are put in the tough position of likely being required to return to in-person instruction, yet potentially having classes filled with unvaccinated students. This not only presents a health risk to all, but it could deeply impact learning should the virus sweep through the classroom during the semester, prompting more unexpected closures and impacting curriculum. Students have had plenty of interruptions over the last year, they don’t need more.
Perhaps a less obvious reason the university should adopt a vaccine mandate is seen in the role of higher education to set a public example. Especially in an era of disinformation, it is critical for institutions that house preeminent science and public health departments to reflect such expertise in their decision-making. Not only will a COVID-19 vaccine mandate create a safer campus, it will therefore remain consistent with public health messaging and help yield significant improvements to vaccination rates across college-age populations. This is particularly critical in Colorado, where only about 16% of people under the age of 30 have elected to obtain the vaccine to date. Given this age group accounts for a considerable portion of the state’s overall population, this is a sizable lapse in the state’s ability to reach herd immunity to overcome the pandemic.
It remains unclear precisely why the University of Colorado has not yet made this decision as part of its preparations. It’s possible there are political and/or legal calculations underway given the hyperpartisan political climate. Regardless, partisan politics should have no bearing on a public health matter that has already killed well over a half million Americans — over 6,260 of which were Coloradans.
For these reasons and more, the CU campuses should require the COVID-19 vaccine for return, and this decision should also be announced as soon as possible to afford all faculty, staff and students the maximum amount of time to arrange for their immunizations.