Higher ed considers vaccine requirements

University of Central Florida students take an in-person class in the fall. This spring, 61% of class sections will be online or remote, and 39% will include an in-person component.

Nearly everyone is trying to get their hands on a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 — with one possible exception. The lowest on the priority list for vaccinations for different federal and state agencies, many college students are unsure of whether to get inoculated. Uncertain about when vaccines will be available to them and what sort of federal or state requirements might accompany their availability, experts question the likelihood of students getting vaccinated without it being a requirement from their institutions. With Gov. Ron DeSantis reaffirming his intentions to protect seniors in Florida first, many institutions of higher education aren’t sure what the future of COVID-19 vaccinations looks like. Most colleges and universities in the country have been utilizing rapid-test technology to ensure students returning to campus from winter breaks aren’t bringing COVID-19 with them.

In Orlando, the University of Central Florida tested about 7,000 students living in UCF housing for the spring semester over a five-day period during the first week of January, during which 42 students tested positive. As of Wednesday, 1,244 students have tested positive since testing at UCF began.

When the university received 1,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine during the week of Jan. 11, staff with the university’s Student Health Services began providing vaccinations to UCF students, faculty and staff ages 65 and over, as well as UCF’s health care workers.

However, like many Florida schools, UCF has yet to decide how it will handle COVID-19 vaccine requirements in the future, though random testing will occur for students living on campus for the remainder of the semester, according to spokeswoman Heather Smith. Plans for the summer and fall terms have not been finalized.

“UCF is encouraging students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated in the interest of our community’s health and safety,” Smith said.

Kevin Yurasek, spokesman for Lake-Sumter State College in Leesburg, said the college has not yet started talking about requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to attend at its campus in the future.

“We are proud of our ongoing COVID-19 mitigation and prevention efforts,” Yurasek said. “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen minimal community spread on our campuses and reported cases from our campus community continue to be low.”

As of Jan. 15, Lake-Sumter had 29 students test positive for COVID-19 and 124 reported student exposures, according to self-reporting data as the college does not conduct its own COVID-19 testing.

Lake-Sumter’s multidisciplinary Emergency Management Team is responsible for overseeing the response to the pandemic. Yurasek said this is the team that will consult with public health and emergency management officials to determine appropriate next steps for the campus.

At College of Central Florida in Ocala, no formal position on vaccination requirements has been adopted, said Lois Brauckmuller, marketing, public and community relations director. The school has had 66 student cases since the beginning of the pandemic, Brauckmuller said.

While these schools may look into creating advisory committees or adopting state or federal regulations in the future, all seem to indicate mass student vaccination efforts aren’t on the agenda yet.

Whether colleges can make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for all on-campus residents could come down to a federal decision.

Under Florida Law, certain vaccinations are required of all students attending public school, including college students.

In higher education, individuals residing in on-campus housing must provide documentation of vaccinations against meningococcal meningitis and hepatitis B unless the individual — if the individual is 18 years of age or older — or the individual’s parent, in the case of minors — declines the vaccinations by signing waivers.

Florida allows exemptions for religious purposes or medical reasons, and these higher education institutions aren’t required to provide or pay for these particular vaccinations. If the COVID-19 inoculation were to become a requirement for on-campus residents or available through on-campus health centers, it would be a big undertaking for many Florida colleges and universities.

Whether colleges will be able to personally distribute the vaccine to their students, as some do with flu shots, is still unclear, though.

Individual Responsibility

Students’ lack of interest in getting vaccinated concerns many health experts.

Although about 70% of college students in the U.S. said they believe it is important to get an annual flu vaccine, just 46% say they typically get vaccinated, according to results from a 2017 National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) survey of 1,005 U.S. college students.

The data implies most students will forgo getting shots without additional motivation, and different pro-vaccination organizations have responded to this.

To encourage people — and students in particular — to get vaccinated, many places offer shots at a low or no cost or incentivizing them with items, such as free food or gift cards.

Although 61% of students said offerings like this would have a positive impact on the likelihood of getting inoculated, according to WalletHub, a personal finance website. But 39% of Americans don’t want to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a December study from Pew Research Center. About half of this group — or 18% of U.S. adults overall — said they may change their minds once more people get the vaccine and more information becomes available.

Although the share of Americans who intend to get the coronavirus vaccine has increased, young people ages 18-29 are among those least likely to say they would get the shot if it were available to them today, according to Pew.

Many of these students seem concerned with long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccines, which haven’t been recorded because of the fast-tracked nature of the vaccination efforts, meaning it may be up to college and university administrators to improve vaccination efforts among students requirements to make students more interested in getting the vaccine.

Of course, before students can even begin to weigh their decision to get vaccinated, the vaccines must become available to them.

According to statements from the incoming Joe Biden administration, reopening schools and vaccinating teachers are top priorities — but healthy college students could be among the last in line to be vaccinated.

Most college students likely will have to wait until April, when more vaccines are available, Dr. Anthony Fauci  said in a statement.

Whether enough college students will voluntarily receive the vaccine remains a pressing question.

Senior writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.