HUNTINGTON — West Virginia institutions of higher learning are not requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students as some universities are across the country.
Marshall University and West Virginia University just strongly encourage the vaccine.
“Our goal is 70%,” said Tracy Smith, director of environmental health and safety at Marshall.
Smith said that in talks with the health department and others, it was determined it would require a state mandate to require the vaccine. Marshall requires the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is also required of West Virginia public K-12 students.
But last week, Gov. Jim Justice said the universities were free to require the vaccine, but he would prefer the state reach herd immunity without mandates.
Universities throughout the country are weighing the legality of requiring the vaccine while trying to protect and reopen campuses.
Universities including Rutgers, Brown, Cornell and Northeastern recently told students they must be vaccinated before returning to campus next fall. They hope to achieve herd immunity on campus, which they say would allow them to loosen spacing restrictions in classrooms and dorms.
But some colleges are leaving the decision to students, and others, like Marshall, believe they can’t legally require vaccinations. At Virginia Tech, officials determined that they can’t because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only allowed the emergency use of the vaccines and hasn’t given them its full approval.
Many schools have launched vaccination blitzes to get students immunized before they leave for the summer. Marshall hosted a clinic at graduation. Smith said they didn’t get many, but there still were students who chose to get vaccinated right as they left the university. Clinics are planned for orientation days and move-in days.
“We are trying to do everything we can and provide opportunities to get vaccinated,” Smith said. “We have this great working group here with the hospitals and the health department, all working together for months on these clinics. We will do what we can to make it available to everyone who will show up and get a vaccine.”
At some schools, the added requirement is meant to encourage holdouts and to build confidence that students and faculty will be safe on campus.
“It takes away any ambiguity about whether individuals should be vaccinated,” said Kenneth Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University in Boston. “It also provides a level of confidence for the entire community that we are taking all appropriate measures.”
Northeastern and other colleges requiring shots believe they’re on solid legal ground. It’s not unusual for colleges to require students to be vaccinated for other types of diseases, and a California court last year upheld a flu shot requirement at the University of California system.
But legal scholars say the COVID-19 vaccines’ emergency use status moves the issue to a legal gray area that’s likely to be challenged in court, and some colleges may take a more cautious approach to avoid litigation.
Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen, who teaches health law and bioethics, said there’s no legal reason colleges wouldn’t be allowed to require COVID-19 vaccinations. It makes no difference that the shots haven’t been given full approval, he said, noting that many colleges already require students to take coronavirus tests that are approved under the same FDA emergency authorization. But there’s also no federal guidance explicitly permitting vaccination mandates.
Still, other colleges are using a lighter touch to promote shots, including at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, which is exempting students from a campus mask mandate two weeks after they are fully vaccinated.
Many others are hoping a word of encouragement will be enough. Campus officials at Bowdoin College in Maine said it’s their “hope and expectation” that all students will get shots. Harvard University officials “strongly recommend” that students get vaccinated but have stopped short of a mandate.
Marshall is requesting students record their vaccination in a registry. Random COVID-19 testing continues, and Smith said many students called up for testing show their vaccine cards from outside campus. It makes it hard for the university to determine where it is in regard to herd immunity, but Smith said he’s hopeful it means numbers are better than they realize.
“Our students were resourceful, with many getting the vaccine before it was even available on campus,” Smith said.
The employee vaccination rate is around 75%, Smith said.