As states expand coronavirus vaccine eligibility to include younger adults, universities are planning to inoculate students to make it safer to reopen fully by the fall.
Some schools are opening vaccine sites, with the goal of giving shots to every student on campus. Others are waiting for guidance from local officials and, in the meantime, urging students to get their doses wherever they can.
The hope, college leaders say, is to open the door for more students to reconvene safely in classrooms, residence halls and cafeterias next school year.
“Fall 2021 is going to look much more like the fall of 2019 than it did 2020,” said David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System. “I’m hoping that at that time all the students that want to be vaccinated and all the faculty that want to be vaccinated will have that opportunity.”
Texas on Monday will begin vaccinating people over the age of 16. Officials at the University of Texas in Austin told students who want to receive their vaccines through the school to register online so they can begin to schedule appointments.
College students have largely been left out of earlier rounds of vaccine distribution. Some of them fell into priority groups — such as essential workers or immunocompromised patients — but the majority have had to wait behind older groups that tend to develop more serious symptoms when infected with the coronavirus.
The vaccinations come after an experimental year in which universities have tried to strike a balance between operating safely and allowing students to resume some sense of normalcy. There have been challenges along the way, from viral outbreaks to the emergence of coronavirus variants that have been shown to be more transmissible than the original strain.
“We are in a good place, but we must remain vigilant,” warned Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech. “Our current situation, while improving, is fragile.”
Sands said he is hopeful that students will have opportunities to be vaccinated before the semester ends in May. The health district surrounding the Blacksburg campus is transitioning to a new vaccine phase that will allow university employees to receive their doses, and local leaders have asked Virginia Tech to schedule 1,500 employees for vaccinations next week, said Mark Owczarski, a spokesman for the campus.
Those employees will join 1,000 others who received their doses in earlier groups, Owczarski added.
Owczarski said the school is preparing for the possibility of inoculating students along with employees, and the football stadium has been identified as the potential site of a mass vaccination event.
“If general student vaccinations are moved up by [the Virginia Department of Health], and if supply is available, then we are confident we could quickly mobilize to make that happen,” Owczarski said.
While officials are encouraging students to get their vaccines, they will not be forced to do so, Sands said. The available vaccines have emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and questions have been raised over whether they can be mandated without full approval from the federal agency.
Officials at Rutgers University in New Jersey have decided vaccines can be mandated, and said Thursday that it will require students who plan to attend the fall semester in person to be fully vaccinated. Exceptions will be made for students with medical or religious excuses, officials said.
Allison Hoffman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said Rutgers may be using an interpretation of the emergency-use authorization mandate, which says people can accept or refuse the vaccine and, if they refuse, face consequences of declining the vaccines.
“What are the consequences of refusing administration of the product? That’s the question,” Hoffman said.
Some legal experts say the consequence of declining a vaccine is the risk of developing severe symptoms or dying after contracting the coronavirus. But, under a different interpretation, the consequence could be the inability to return to school or work.
“It’s hard to know exactly how it would be interpreted in a legal challenge,” Hoffman said.
Dory Devlin, a Rutgers spokeswoman, said “the university is comfortable with the legal authority supporting this policy,” but declined to explain further.
Rutgers leaders in their announcement cited President Joe Biden, who encouraged states to open vaccine eligibility to include all adults by May 1. But New Jersey is still vaccinating select groups, including essential workers, people with certain medical conditions and adults over the age of 65.
Requiring vaccinations will help the campus make “an expedited return to pre-pandemic normal,” officials said. The university has been given approval to administer vaccines to students, faculty and staff, but does not yet have any doses at its disposal.
In Tucson, the University of Arizona is on track to vaccinate its student body and will open appointments Friday morning, said Holly Jensen, a campus spokeswoman. New, wider, eligibility guidelines in the state will allow the university to get closer to its goal of vaccinating every student before the semester ends.
The university has distributed more than 80,000 doses of the vaccine at its state-run site. Officials expect to deliver 4,000 shots daily now that students and other adults are eligible to receive the medicine, Jensen said.
Once students are fully vaccinated — about two weeks after receiving their entire dosage — they will be exempt from mandatory weekly coronavirus testing, Jensen said. She acknowledged that even vaccinated individuals can contract and spread the coronavirus, but students will still be required to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“We understand that the vaccine is not the end all be all, but it is the beginning of the end,” Jensen said. “Our end goal is to come back fully in-person in the fall.”
Increased access to vaccines in Arizona come as the university shared plans to increase its size limit on in-person classes, from 50 to 100 students, starting Monday. About 17,000 students — one-third of the campus population — will be on campus starting next week, Jensen said.
The vaccine rollout for college students is likely to mirror the country’s patchwork of rules and regulations that determine who gets their dosage and when.
The University of Maryland at College Park, for example, does not have its own doses and the state is focused on inoculating essential workers and vulnerable groups. The university is advising eligible students to get vaccinated at state-run clinics.
Officials at the University of Virginia are unsure when the general student body can receive their shots but are preparing to vaccinate employees once the state shifts into the next wave of eligibility, said Brian Coy, a spokesman.
But at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, some students can get vaccinated on campus starting Wednesday, said spokeswoman Kate Maroney. The campus received 2,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and will administer them to eligible students — including those with high-risk medical conditions and individuals living in group settings such as Greek housing, residence halls and off-campus homes.
The rest of the 30,000-member student body will be eligible April 7, when the state expands access to every adult, Maroney said. The student vaccination clinic will be able to dole out up to 2,000 doses each week.
Reeves Moseley, UNC’s student body president, said the availability of the vaccine is giving students hope after an exceedingly difficult year. He added he’s optimistic the clinic’s convenient location on campus will incentivize people his age to get their shots.
“It’s been hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Moseley said. “It’s showing the fact that there is an end to this pandemic.”