To encourage students and employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19, West Virginia University is hoping to harness their desire for a more normal campus life. If the campus hits 50-percent vaccination, concerts, plays, and the rec center will open at 50-percent capacity, the administration promises. At 60 percent, outdoor sports activities like volleyball and basketball would resume, residence halls would be open to all student visitors, and Greek-letter organizations could host in-person recruitment. At 75 percent, many programs would run at full capacity, and homecoming would be in person.
The university is one of several that have eschewed immunization mandates in favor of telling students that if enough of them voluntarily choose to get Covid shots, they’ll get a more normal, social fall. As of Wednesday, The Chronicle has documented over 300 campuses that plan to require Covid-19 vaccinations for the fall. At the same time, many colleges remain constrained by state orders and fears of pushback from their communities. Some of them have turned to the “carrots” of promising in-person activity at certain vaccination thresholds, instead of the “stick” of a mandate.
“We hope that everyone will get a vaccine because they are very safe, very effective, and really the best way to get out of this pandemic,” said Rob Alsop, West Virginia’s vice president for strategic initiatives. “As everybody knows, there’s a lot of hesitancy by individuals in getting the vaccine. While, in time, I hope that will dissipate, the big challenge we have to work through now is: Do you have a lot of blowback from the campus and spend a lot of energy in addressing that, when you could get almost as close via a campaign to convince everybody that it’s the right thing to do?”
At Oberlin College, administrators believe they’ll be able to get almost as close with their voluntary campaign, which promises a rethinking of campus Covid rules if vaccination rates hit 80 percent. In February, the college surveyed students, staff, and faculty about whether they intended to get a Covid-19 vaccine. The results were not far from what administrators would have wished with a mandate, said Katie Gravens, the Covid-19 campus health coordinator. Ninety-five percent of students said they intended to get the shots, while 89 percent of employees did. At the same time, leaders feared the State of Ohio passing a ban on vaccine mandates. “Why would we mandate it and then have it revoked?” Gravens said.
That happened to administrators at Nova Southeastern University, in Florida. They announced an intended immunization requirement in early April … on the same day Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, issued his ban on “vaccine passports.” Nova Southeastern administrators ultimately interpreted the executive order to mean their mandate couldn’t stand. Now they are saying that they have a “voluntary, aspirational goal” of 100-percent vaccination — and that they’ll increase in-person class capacity, relax masking and social-distancing rules, and allow for dining on campus if 80 percent of students report being vaccinated.
“We have heard overwhelmingly from our students, faculty, and staff their desire to return to onsite activities with fewer Covid restrictions, a longing to return to ‘normal,’” Beth Welmaker, Nova Southeastern’s executive director of environmental health and safety, wrote in an emailed statement to The Chronicle. “We all recognize to achieve this safely, a large number of individuals will need to be vaccinated.”
While acknowledging that some colleges may be limited in their ability to mandate Covid-19 vaccines — especially while they remain under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorization, rather than full approval — public-health experts that The Chronicle consulted were mixed in their assessments of how well a voluntary numerical goal works instead. The consensus is that even with good processes in place for people to claim medical and personal-belief exemptions, a mandate is the surest way to achieve the highest vaccination rate possible on campuses. Beyond that, experts varied in their enthusiasm for vaccination thresholds as an alternative.
Rebecca Weintraub, a physician and assistant professor in the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, hopes that colleges will treat Covid-19 vaccines like any other, once at least one gets full FDA approval, which is expected this summer. “If they have set out requirements for students to be vaccinated to enter their campuses,” she said, “I would add the Covid-19 vaccine to their ongoing list.”
In the meantime, she said, “we should try everything in the book” to encourage students to take a vaccine. That includes luring them with the promise of in-person activity. She also pointed to a recent study that found that text reminders telling people that a shot is “reserved” for them ups their likelihood of getting a flu vaccine, and said raffles and prizes could also be useful nudges. In fact, West Virginia University had considered cash for vaccines, Alsop said. When the governor announced $100 savings bonds for young adults who get the shot, however, university leaders decided they didn’t need to give out more free money.
Monica Gandhi, associate division chief for HIV, infectious disease, and global health at the University of California at San Francisco, was more supportive of vaccine-rate thresholds as a primary strategy.
“I actually think you have to start with voluntary,” she said. “The reason is, it’s been hard for college students because they are generally not as much at risk for the severe outcomes that older people are, and yet their lives have been profoundly restricted to protect the elderly and to protect the vulnerable.” It may seem unfair to students to be handed yet another mandate that would seem to be more for others’ good than their own. (Although, with the possibility of lasting, long-haul Covid symptoms, young, healthy college students should consider a vaccine a benefit to themselves as well, Weintraub said.)
Colleges should consider concrete predictions about their local regions in coming up with vaccination thresholds, said Saad B. Omer, a professor of infectious diseases at Yale University. “It shouldn’t be a gut feeling,” he said. “It should be based on some computations and it should be based on rational, systematic assumptions.”
Several campus plans converge around 80 percent as a goal. That suggests they are using a number that experts had discussed as the nationwide vaccination rate needed for herd immunity against Covid-19, Omer said. That’s a good starting point but not enough by itself, he said.
West Virginia University didn’t exactly do a scientific study to check what is safe at its different incentive tiers, Alsop said, but administrators consulted with public-health faculty members to ensure they felt comfortable with the levels of reopening that university leadership wanted to offer. So far, 12 percent of employees and 6 percent of students have confirmed in the university’s online system that they’ve been vaccinated. Hopefully more will do so soon.
The university knows that it has vaccinated roughly half of employees and one-quarter of students through its own clinics, said Erin Newmeyer, executive director for strategic initiatives. But for the shots to count toward the reopening goals, people must choose to register their vaccinations too.