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After a rare gathering of the University Assembly on Wednesday, West Virginia University faculty members voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution urging the school’s Board of Governors to implement a vaccine mandate for staff and students by Jan. 1, 2022.

There were 1,279 votes cast, with 1,094 in support of the resolution and 185 against. The resolution, if adopted as is by the Board of Governors, would require a COVID-19 vaccine for people attending or working at WVU, with “limited legally mandated exceptions.”

“I put forth this resolution because students invest their time, energy and money to come to WVU face to face. Online learning is not at all desirable, nor is it nearly as effective. Students want to be in person,” said Jared Sims, director of jazz studies at the university. “COVID-19 has had a tremendously negative effect on the entire campus. I feel strongly that it’s negligent for us to allow unvaccinated individuals to be on our campus.”

More than 900 faculty members logged in to Wednesday’s three-hour meeting to discuss the resolution. The final vote was done via a secure online form, and votes were manually finalized before the results were announced Friday.

“We always appreciate and consider input from our campus community. Ultimately, it is an administrative decision made in consultation with our Board of Governors,” read a university statement in response to the results.

Wednesday’s meeting included appeals from doctors, concern for students and back-and-forths on developing COVID-19 research and data. There were questionable, uncited claims made about COVID-19 infection and spread, as well as vaccines.

University President Gordon Gee, in comments to faculty, said he did not support a vaccine mandate at this time and that implementing one would “only create more division.”

The faculty voted down amendments that would have added “natural immunity” as an option in place of full vaccination and unnecessarily clarified terms in the resolution.

Dr. Jeffrey Coben, associate vice president for health affairs and dean of WVU’s School of Public Health, said it’s undeniable that COVID-19 is devastating and that vaccines are integral to protecting people and the community, but “a mandate cannot be approached from a purely public health perspective.”

“For example, from a purely public health perspective, we should advocate for the banning of all tobacco products, we should advocate for the prohibition and the elimination of all alcohol products,” Coben said. “And we should advocate for the removal of all guns, and the ban on the sale of any firearms in this country.”

As reported by The Daily Athenaeum, all those things are not allowed on WVU campuses. And WVU — like most colleges and universities in the country — does mandate vaccines for all first-time freshman and transfer students, including those for mumps, measles, rubella, meningitis and polio.

Coben shared his doubts on the benefits of enacting a mandate. West Virginia — along with the nation — is in the middle of another COVID-19 surge, this one bringing hospital capacity in the state lower than any other point in the pandemic.

But, Coben said, trend data from other regions shows the average surge lasting about seven weeks. West Virginia, he said, is already in week five of the surge.

“Getting everyone who is not currently vaccinated to be fully vaccinated will take another four-to-six weeks, at least,” Coben said. “At that rate, and with West Virginia being in week five of this surge already, the real-world impact of this mandate may be much less than we hope for.”

Per the state government, there are 19,434 active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, and 2,075 of those were new, as of Friday.

Monongalia County is home to high transmission of COVID-19, according to the state map and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases in the county are highest among residents ages 16-25, which account for just under 35% of total cases.

It’s likely that another COVID-19 surge will occur, potentially in the fall and winter — as was the case in 2020 — when other respiratory viruses and illnesses are known to spread.

Faculty members shared concerns of not being protected in their classrooms and risking bringing the virus home to young children who cannot be vaccinated or loved ones who are immunocompromised.

Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives at the university, said that, while he supports vaccinations, faculty should avoid a mandate, which could inspire opposition. He warned of faculty, staff and students leaving the school.

More than 700 colleges and universities in the United States have implemented some kind of vaccine mandate on their campus, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. As the federal Food and Drug Administration granted full authorization and approval for the Pfizer vaccine last month, more and more businesses have been making vaccines mandatory, including WVU Health Systems.

Alsop warned that might not continue.

“We have heard from certain legislative leaders that they’re likely to consider, and perhaps pass, legislation that will prohibit the mandating of COVID-19 vaccines for state employees,” Alsop said.

Viruses mutate among unvaccinated populations, and the more people in a community who are eligible to be vaccinated but opt not to, the less safe the community is for people who do not have a choice, health officials say.

While breakthrough infections — when a fully vaccinated person contracts COVID-19 — are growing more common as the virus continues to spread, vaccines are still effective in staving off severe illness or death in people.

Today, almost 74% of WVU staff and faculty and more than 73% of the student body report being fully vaccinated, according to the school. Separately, Monongalia County reports 55% of eligible residents being fully vaccinated.

A survey floated by the WVU Student Government Association found that 60% of students responding (2,400 out of 3,969) supported mandatory vaccinations with case-by-case exemptions on campus, according to The Daily Athenaeum. The group, like the faculty did, will vote next week on a resolution urging university administration to implement such a mandate.

The next regularly scheduled meeting for the WVU Board of Governors is Sept. 17.

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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