The University of Minnesota will not require COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff before returning in the fall — despite criticism from faculty members that a mandate would better shield its five campuses from the infectious disease.
U President Joan Gabel announced the decision Monday but urged vaccination.
"The most effective strategy is access and information," she wrote in an e-mail to campus communities in the Twin Cities, Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester. She added that "a 100% vaccination rate is not possible in any situation," even with a mandate.
The lack of a requirement drew condemnation from a group of faculty members, some of whom treated COVID-19 patients at M Health Fairview hospitals. The U already mandates other vaccinations, they argued, and could boost the immunization rate against COVID-19 to a level that could prevent a resurgence of infections or the emergence of more infectious variants of the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease.
"While most University students are likely to be at low risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, some have weakened immune systems and may be more vulnerable, and at this point we have the tools to prevent nearly all deaths from COVID-19," they wrote.
The letter was co-authored by Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, a U infectious disease specialist; Dr. Nathan Chomilo, an adjunct faculty member and medical director of Minnesota's Medicaid program; and Dr. Michael Aylward, a U professor of pediatric medicine.
Fifty other faculty members signed on in support of the online letter Tuesday evening, including Dr. Andrew Olson — who has directed M Health Fairview's inpatient COVID-19 care throughout the pandemic.
Gabel questioned the necessity of a mandate, pointing to a U survey of Twin Cities students, faculty and staff in May in which 96% of respondents had received at least one vaccine dose or reported plans to be vaccinated. Among the respondents, 84% reported being fully vaccinated.
"This is a great start that I hope is embraced across all our campus communities," she wrote, "and is also an important factor in assessing our safety and the safety of those we care for."
Minnesota's overall vaccination rate by comparison is only 65.8% among eligible people 12 and older. First-dose vaccination rates in the counties with U campuses vary from 77.3% in southeastern Olmsted County to 51.2% in northwestern Polk County.
At M Health Fairview, the not-for-profit health system that runs the university's hospitals as well as Ebenezer Senior Living centers, employees are required to either be vaccinated for COVID-19 or complete a form explaining their decision to decline. But for now, the system has no mandate for its tens of thousands of employees to get vaccinated for COVID, spokeswoman Aimee Jordan said.
The Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents nurses at the U, opposes vaccine mandates in general, as stated on the union's COVID-19 web page: "Vaccination must not be mandated by law or as a condition of employment."
However, MNA spokesman Rick Fuentes said the union has not yet taken a stance specifically on COVID-19 vaccines.
Gabel encouraged the "small remaining group" of unvaccinated students, faculty and staff to visit the U's Get the Vax plan and arrange to get their shots.
Minnesota State, whose higher education system includes 30 colleges, seven universities and 54 campuses, also does not require vaccination by students, faculty and staff, according to its website, but "we strongly encourage all members of the campus community/system office to help keep everyone safe and healthy by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask if they are not vaccinated or simply choose to do so, staying home if they are sick or not feeling well, washing their hands often, and practicing good hand, cough, and sneeze hygiene."
The state Health Department has stated previously that its staff members "strongly recommend each college make vaccines a priority this fall and develop the best approach for their unique community that will lead to as many people as possible getting vaccinated."
The statement went on to explain that "the college years go fast, and we want students focused on getting the most out of this special time in their lives. Staff and faculty should be able to focus on supporting students during these years. The best way to be able to stay focused on what matters is by everyone getting vaccinated as soon as possible."
The U faculty opposition group said a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education listed 506 schools that will require COVID-19 vaccination, including the University of Michigan and Indiana University, as well as the entire Ivy League.
Star Tribune staff writer Joe Carlson contributed to this report.
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