Minnesota colleges desperate for a return to normalcy are considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for students to protect their campus communities and avoid pandemic-related disruptions this fall.
Hundreds of U.S. colleges have already said their students must be vaccinated by the start of the fall semester. But so far, just a handful of private colleges in Minnesota have announced the requirement. Most private colleges here remain undecided on whether to require vaccinations, as do the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems, which are encouraging immunization, not mandating it.
Hamline University sophomore Sadie Berlin, who's studying public health, is all for the idea. She believes that if vaccinations are required, Hamline students and employees will be able to enjoy traditional campus life without worry of infecting one another.
"I think that'd be the most beneficial, especially because everyone is in such close quarters," Berlin, 19, said Thursday just moments after receiving her second dose at a pop-up clinic on the St. Paul campus.
The debate over vaccination requirements is playing out among students, faculty, staff and administrators. Some believe campus communities that are fully vaccinated will have the best public health outcomes, while others argue that such mandates are an overreach and unnecessary given rising vaccination rates.
"I would have qualms about a state institution requiring vaccination when none of the vaccines actually have FDA approval as opposed to emergency clearances for use," said Scott Petty, the University of Minnesota's graduate student body president.
Minnesota schools that have announced vaccination requirements include Macalester College, Carleton College, Gustavus Adolphus College and the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Carleton and Macalester are requiring students, staff and faculty to be inoculated by the start of the fall semester, while Gustavus is mandating it only for students.
Gustavus Provost Brenda Kelly noted that vaccination requirements for students are nothing new. Like other colleges, Gustavus already requires its students to get vaccinated against tetanus and measles, mumps and rubella, she said.
The college in St. Peter opted to not require COVID-19 vaccination for its roughly 700 employees because 83% of them have already received at least one dose, Kelly said.
Administrators from Hamline, the University of St. Thomas and St. Olaf College say they, too, are monitoring student and employee vaccination rates as they decide whether to make it mandatory.
As of last week, 73% of students and 76% of faculty and staff at St. Olaf had reported receiving at least one vaccine dose, college President David Anderson said in a statement.
At St. Thomas, Minnesota's largest private university, a vaccine mandate might not be necessary because nearly 90% of employees have already been immunized and the number of students who've received their shots is growing "very quickly," President Julie Sullivan said. Many students waited until the end of the school year to get vaccinated to avoid experiencing side effects during final exams, she said.
"We don't want to put in an onerous process that's basically not going to make our campus any safer than it already is," Sullivan said.
The sprawling Minnesota State system, consisting of 30 community colleges and seven universities, has no plans at this time to require vaccinations for students, spokesman Doug Anderson said. But the colleges and universities continue to "strongly encourage" the shots and will host vaccination clinics through the summer and fall.
The system has not faced much pushback on its decision. Representatives from LeadMN and Students United, the two associations representing Minnesota State students, said they have not taken a stance on the issue.
During a Minnesota State trustees meeting last week, Matt Williams, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty union, said educators care about more than just vaccinations.
"It's about ventilation and all the other things that we have learned this past year about how to make indoor spaces safe for everyone," Williams said, urging the need for precautions and work accommodations to remain "until the transmission rate approaches zero."
U to decide by early June
The University of Minnesota will decide by early June whether to require vaccination for the roughly 60,000 students attending its five campuses, U spokesman Jake Ricker said. Among the factors being considered: the vaccines' emergency use authorization status, Minnesota's student immunization law and the "public responsibilities of a state institution," Ricker said.
A random survey conducted in early May found that students and employees on the U's Twin Cities campus are embracing vaccination. In the survey of 12,500 students, staff and faculty, 96% of respondents reported that they had received at least one dose or planned to be vaccinated. A total of 84% reported being fully vaccinated.
The U is considering launching a public communication effort touting the benefits of vaccination to further increase adoption, Ricker said.
Phil Buhlmann, a chemistry professor who chairs the U's faculty senate, said it may be more worthwhile to offer incentives to students who have not yet been vaccinated. A mandate would have to be enforced, he said, and that would use up university resources.
Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, a U associate professor and infectious disease specialist, countered that a mandate would more likely help the university avoid pandemic-related disruptions in the fall. If a large enough group of students remain unvaccinated, there will likely be small outbreaks that could prompt dormitory lockdowns and classroom exposure alerts, he said.
Additionally, Drekonja said, requiring campus community members to be vaccinated is the best way to protect the vulnerable. Those who have suppressed immune systems may not gain as much protection from the vaccine.
"It's pretty incumbent on the school to have a safe environment around them," he said.
Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234