A view of Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. (Courtesy of Colorado Mesa University)
Colorado Mesa University has done things differently since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this academic year is no different.
Unlike many other institutions of higher education in Colorado — including the University of Colorado system, University of Northern Colorado, and Colorado State University Fort Collins — CMU is not requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for its students or staff. While CMU, a public university in Grand Junction, is encouraging its community members to get vaccinated, it wants to “honor” everyone’s individual choices.
“Our approach is not one of forced compliance, but of engagement, education and empowerment to utilize critical thinking to make informed choices,” the school’s website states. “We are recommending the COVID-19 vaccine for those in our campus community. We’re also honoring everyone’s individual choices and understand that — for a variety of reasons — some of us are not yet ready to receive a vaccination.”
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Masks are encouraged — but not required — on campus, according to the school’s “Mindful Masking” policy. “We ask that all members of the campus community respect one another’s decision to wear or not wear a mask,” the website says.
CMU recommends that students, faculty, and staff wear masks when indoors.
Mesa County, where CMU is located, is the most populous county in Colorado’s Western Slope and had Colorado’s first reported case of the more infectious delta variant, which was discovered on May 5. Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traveled to Mesa County earlier this year to investigate why the delta variant was spreading in the county. In August, the CDC reported on the “rapid increase” of the delta variant in Mesa County over the spring. In May the New York Times reported on CMU’s COVID-19 tracking system.
But while other schools in the state have begun to tighten COVID-19 protocols again, CMU has loosened them.
CMU is focusing on “protective immunity,” which it says includes people who are fully vaccinated, as well as people who have tested positive for COVID-19 previously, even if they are not vaccinated.
“Protective immunity is different than thinking about just vaccinated or unvaccinated. It’s also an understanding of a level of protection, and we know that you can confer a level of protection in a couple of different ways, one of those being that you’ve had COVID in the past, so a natural immunity to COVID. We also know that you can confer protection by being vaccinated. So both of those things confer some level of protected immunity,” said Dr. Amy Bronson, chair of CMU’s Infectious and Communicable Disease Advisory Committee. “What we do know about that data and what the evidence is really painting a clear picture about is both the vaccine and natural levels of immunity essentially are very effective in preventing serious COVID infections, so we’re looking at hospitalizations.”
The concept of protective immunity continues to be vital to understanding our approach to campus COVID policies and protocols. Learn more at https://t.co/2haHxW7O9Z. #CMesaU pic.twitter.com/on9mMPBbV7
— Colorado Mesa University (@ColoradoMesaU) August 30, 2021
“We also understand that some of our population may come from a construct or a family that was going to keep them from wanting them to come to college if there was a mandate in place,” Bronson said.
Not all agree with CMU’s approach.
“From a scientific perspective, there are certain population level interventions that are much more effective if entire populations do them, ” said Phoebe Lostroh, an associate professor of molecular biology at Colorado College. “So vaccinations is an example of a strategy that is most effective if everyone does it, instead of just a few people doing it. And it has a much larger effect on a population where most people have opted in.”
Lostroh also provides regular COVID-19 predictions for El Paso County through the school’s COVID-19 Reporting Project.
“That’s why we have nearly universal childhood vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, all these things that are routine for children who are under the age of 6,” Lostroh said. “It’s why we have routine vaccination for all dogs against rabies, instead of just some of the dogs, because in order to get rid of an infectious agent in the community, you need to have everybody vaccinated, whether you are talking about a population of dogs or a population of human beings, it doesn’t matter.”
CMU wants to help students make good personal choices while being accountable to others on campus, Bronson said.
“Our approach is not one of forced compliance, but of engagement, education, and helping those on our campus to utilize critical thinking to make informed choices,” she said.
“I think it is too bad that this rhetoric around individual freedom is being mobilized against vaccination and mask-wearing. I think that’s a very cynical position, and public health tells us that we have to take care of each other, and that no one is healthy so long as the highest risk people are not protected and made as healthy as possible,” said Lostroh. “The way to have a healthy population is to make sure that the most vulnerable among us have good health care, and in this case, it means we really need to have universal adoption of the vaccine.”
These are probably some of the safest vaccines that have ever been in use, literally in human history, and so we really should be embracing them much more.
– Phoebe Lostroh, of Colorado College
“These are probably some of the safest vaccines that have ever been in use, literally in human history, and so we really should be embracing them much more,” Lostroh said, referring to COVID-19 vaccinations available in the United States.
Bronson said that the CMU football coach invited Bronson and Michael Reeder, a medical physician on campus, to speak with the school’s football team, whose members had arrived on campus early for their fall football camp, and they had a conversation on why CMU is promoting the vaccine, and the vaccine efficacy and safety. Bronson said many members of the team told them that they were thinking about not playing football and not continuing their academics if they were going to be told they had to get a vaccine.
“After we took the time to listen, and to hear where they were coming from, to hear some of their fears, and to actually engage them in a conversation, 26 of our football players since returning from fall camp, decided to go and get the vaccine. It was their own autonomy and agency in making that decision, and if you think about the impact of that, that moves beyond just the pandemic,” Bronson said.
Bronson said while there is not a vaccine mandate, CMU is encouraging students and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Fully vaccinated students and staff at CMU are asked to voluntarily upload their vaccination records. Students and staff who have not been vaccinated but had a positive COVID-19 PCR test result last year or have a positive antibody test are asked to upload the test results and the COVID-19 response team will contact them if the students or staff are required to do any further testing.
Staff who did not have a positive PCR result and have not been vaccinated will be part of Colorado Mesa University’s random COVID-19 testing protocols, according to the website. Students who do not have a positive PCR test result or antibody test are required to show a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to moving on campus, or 72 hours prior to the start of classes for students who are not living on campus. Classes began Aug. 23. Students who do not want to be tested are required to sign a COVID-19 test waiver and will not have access to any campus facilities or campus events, according to the website.
It’s unclear whether a positive COVID-19 antibody test or previously having COVID-19 offers adequate protection against a COVID-19 re-infection, especially in light of recent breakthrough infections, which occur when fully vaccinated individuals test positive for COVID-19.
“We know from SARS-1 that the amount of immunity that they get, in terms of antibodies in their blood, fell precipitously after not a very long period of time, but that it was variable,” Lostroh said. “Some people who survived SARS-1 had antibodies for a long time, and some people had antibodies for just a short period of time. Based on that experience, we would expect that to be the case with SARS-2.”
“There’s a lot of studies showing that getting the infection and not being vaccinated is much less protective than being vaccinated. In fact, the best thing for someone who has had COVID to do is to get the shot,” Lostroh said.
Some teachers and professors are leaving academia due to COVID-19. Trish Zornio, a columnist for Newsline, left her position as a lecturer at the University of Colorado Denver due to what she considers a lack of COVID-19 protocols. Zornio said faculty were not given any information on who, or even what percentage of people, were vaccinated in their classes. When she asked university administrators about protocols, such as whether a student is uncomfortable coming to class or if a student refuses to wear a mask, Zornio said they had no guidance.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, I didn’t think it would be an effective teaching semester and I just wasn’t willing to be a part of that,” Zornio said.
Measles, mumps other vaccines required
“We are extremely proud that CMU allows students the opportunity to think critically about the options available to them in regards to COVID-19,” wrote Jay Shearrow, Aaron Reed, and Mahlet Mamo, members of CMU Associated Student Government in a joint statement, sent to Newsline by a representative of Barefoot PR, which acts as an extension of CMU’s communication team. “We’re proud that our university practices mindful masking to ensure that anyone who wants to wear a mask is comfortable doing so.”
The school’s student government did not respond to requests for a phone interview.
People at CMU who have protective immunity and are exposed to a person with COVID-19 are not required to quarantine, but they are asked to take a COVID-19 test three to five days after exposure, according to the school’s website. Individuals without protective immunity are required to quarantine for 10 days after being exposed to a person with COVID-19.
The only vaccines required for students at CMU are vaccines that the state requires Colorado college students to have, which include vaccines for the measles, mumps, and rubella. Students who are doing clinical experiences and internships with “community partners” may need to show proof of vaccination, according to the website.
Colorado Mesa University is offering a vaccine clinic on campus for first doses on Sept. 8, and for second doses on Sept. 22 and 29, and Oct. 6.
CMU’s website encourages students, faculty, and staff members who are undecided on whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine to contact Dr. Michael Reeder, the acting director of the Monfort Family Human Performance Lab, to ask additional questions.
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