Contributed by Jake Garner, Community Director, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
With a full and exhausting academic year of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, it is natural to ask the question, “What’s next?” If the past year has been any indication, it’s likely the answer to that inquiry will change more than once between today and the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester. However, the growing availability of vaccines provides an optimistic outlook that something “more normal” may be in the near future. A small but rapidly expanding number of colleges and universities are beginning to announce vaccination requirements for the fall semester, which makes the possibility of an in-person fall semester seem more real.
However, such requirements are not without challenges. While it is far from unprecedented for colleges and universities to require vaccinations (think MMR and meningitis), legal challenges have been expected due to the emergency use authorization status of these vaccines. While courts have historically been friendly to vaccination requirements, the EUA is less than 20 years old, meaning little precedent exists. An anti-vaccination group has already begun to challenge the vaccine requirements announced at Rutgers and Princeton. Additionally, state governments in Texas and Utah have banned vaccine requirements at public colleges via executive order and legislation respectively. Even states having requirements may offer religious and/or philosophical exemptions, and medical exemptions will always remain a necessity, so a fully vaccinated campus anywhere is unlikely.
Up until now, limited availability of vaccines may have made it difficult for anyone to find an appointment, but access to vaccines is rapidly increasing. As of April 19, all adults in the U.S. are eligible to receive the vaccine, and there are areas of the nation where the supply of vaccine doses exceeds the demand. While these milestones are certainly important, eligibility for all does not necessarily equate to equal access. It is well known that people of color suffered disproportionately from the pandemic, and now, the Black and Latino communities are underrepresented in the group of Americans receiving the vaccine. Many of the efforts to make vaccines accessible still assume that individuals speak English, have access to the internet to schedule appointments, and have access to transportation. These efforts may also fail to be conscious of the needs of individuals with disabilities, as not all vaccination sites and sign-up methods are accessible.
One solution to issues of access is to offer vaccines to students on-campus, and while this is certainly helpful, it does not guarantee an equal experience. Particularly if policy is informed by the fact that immunity comes two weeks after being completely vaccinated, students who were unable to receive the vaccine before arriving on campus may have a different experience than those who have long been vaccinated if additional health and safety restrictions are necessary until they are immune. Additionally, students vaccinated while on-campus may also have to face vaccine side effects during the semester while they are expected to remain accountable to academic obligations and try to connect with campus.
Even if vaccines are available and accessible, not every eligible individual will be willing to be vaccinated. This reluctance is known as vaccine hesitancy, and has been studied in polls, including a recent NPR/PBS/Marist survey. The results suggest that vaccine hesitancy is common — but not the popular view — with two thirds of adults stating they have already been vaccinated or intend to be. With the politicized nature of vaccines, the poll also shows that vaccine hesitancy is more common among those who supported Trump in 2020. That said, it’s important to note that vaccine hesitancy is not a single school of thought, and any number of identities or experiences may contribute.
While the recent poll shows little difference in vaccine hesitancy among Black and white Americans, this is a change from previous polls, which showed vaccine hesitancy was more common within the Black community. While the change may be attributed to targeted outreach and education, especially from Black leaders and medical providers, it is unsurprising these folks may approach vaccination reluctantly, particularly with the vaccine still under an EUA. It’s been less than 40 years since the infamous Tuskegee Experiment was shut down, and institutional racism remains in health care, so reluctance around medical research is not unfounded.
Similarly, research around vaccine hesitancy in the Latino community shows that hesitancy within that group is associated with distrust in the government and other political sources of vaccine information. Additionally, one survey shows that the LGBTQ+ individuals may also be reluctant to receive a vaccine. While more data may be needed, it’s possible that hesitancy within this community may be due to a mix of distrust in politicized healthcare and a lack of safety and efficacy data for HIV positive individuals since gay and bisexual men are disproporionately affected by HIV in the United States. Similarly, vaccine hesitancy may be more common for folks with some disabilities or medical conditions that were not represented in clinical trials of the vaccines. The CDC notes safety information is not established for all groups with pre-existing conditions.
Implications for ResLife
Between the increasing availability of vaccines and desire for normalcy, it may be easy to slip into the mentality that everyone who wants to be vaccinated has been vaccinated and normal operations can resume. While moving toward normal is the goal and vaccines are aiding us in getting there, doing so too quickly could end up creating inequitable experiences for — or even endangering — those on the margins who haven’t been vaccinated. Hence, it’s important to be conscious of the ways in which we can begin to move forward while considering the experience of all students. Even if you aren’t in a policy-making position, there are ways we can move forward while leaving no one behind.
Check your bias around vaccine hesitancy: Between a skew in numbers based on ideology and the loud voices of anti-vaccination groups, it may be easy to equate vaccine hesitancy with anti-vaxxers, anti-science, and anti-intellectualism. Remember if you’re working with a student or colleague who has expressed they haven’t received a vaccine or don’t plan on receiving one, it’s important not to make assumptions. Anyone could be carrying an invisible identity or experience contributing to their stance. Regardless of their reasoning for avoiding vaccination, you can move forward with compassion and find ways to work with them.
Find ways to incentivize vaccinations: If a vaccination requirement is not possible, positive reinforcement around vaccines still may be. Some institutions have already found creative ways to incentivize vaccination. This may take the form of easing health and safety requirements for vaccinated individuals as appropriate or giveaways and raffles for students who provide proof of vaccination. While creating positive motivation can be effective in enticing students who may just be indifferent to vaccination, exercise caution to not make the perks so essential or visible as to create an inequitable experience or shame those who cannot be vaccinated.
Continue to enforce health and safety measures: With the likelihood that many more students will be vaccinated next semester, it may be tempting to approach health and safety measures with less vigilance. Whatever these measures turn out to be, it may be easy to brush off students who ignore requirements, assuming they are vaccinated. However, there is no way to differentiate vaccinated and unvaccinated students during day-to-day interactions, so consistent enforcement and reminders for vaccinated students why policy remains important will be key.
Embrace hybrid events and meetings: Having traversed the steep learning curve of virtual programs and meetings, we’re all eager to return to in-person interactions, and there will be times it’s safe to do so. That said, not all folks will be comfortable or able to attend in-person gatherings, so considering the ways that experiences can be hybridized to include equitable in-person and virtual components is vital. While there is certainly room for creative thinking in implementing hybrid experiences, utilizing the resources and expertise of faculty who have already been instructing hybrid classes, may provide a valuable starting point.
Be an example: If you’re willing and able to get vaccinated, do so! As a vaccinated person on campus, you can serve as an example to others. We know that some folks utilize a “wait and see” approach with vaccines and may be more comfortable when those they know have been vaccinated rather than relying on clinical trial data. Additionally, being vaccinated can provide the opportunity to demonstrate the individual perks of vaccination in line with safety guidelines for those who are vaccinated. Lastly, getting vaccinated yourself can contribute to herd immunity, a state requiring 75 to 85 percent of the population being vaccinated, in which the virus can no longer spread through the population. Herd immunity could keep everyone safe, regardless of individual vaccination status.