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Colleges not requiring vaccines

No mandates at local campuses

Students walk to the Slep Student Center on the Penn State Altoona campus on Friday afternoon. Rutgers and Cornell universities have made the move to require their students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to campus in the fall. While several area institutions are not requiring their students to follow suit, they are strongly encouraging students to get vaccinated. / Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Area colleges and universities are not requiring students to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as fall approaches.

Two weeks ago, officials at Rutgers University announced a vaccine mandate for students, and Cornell University soon did the same. So far in central and western Pennsylvania, however, schools are shying away from mandates, instead strongly encouraging students to get vaccinated.

At Penn State’s main campus, where State College has long been a virus hotspot, university officials are “strongly encouraging everyone in our community to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible and a dose is available,” according to a statement from Wyatt DuBois, a university spokesman.

“We are continuing to monitor developments and vaccine availability carefully and may alter our approach in the future if it is determined to be in the best interest of our community or called for by public policy,” DuBois said. He said “more information will be forthcoming” as university officials “weigh the pandemic’s continuing impact on our communities.”

At the University of Pittsburgh, the message to students is about the same.

In a statement, Communications Manager Kevin Zwick stressed the importance of access as a factor to determine whether students will be able to be vaccinated before fall.

“We encourage every member of the Pitt community to get vaccinated when it is available to them,” Zwick said. “Given current supply limitations, it is not guaranteed every student will have equal access to the vaccine prior to August 2021. We will continue to follow public health guidance and enact necessary mitigation measures, including making the vaccine available to students upon their return to campus in the fall, depending on the availability of supply.”

Saint Francis University in Loretto also will not require students to be vaccinated.

“Saint Francis University encourages students to be vaccinated and follow (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidance regarding all vaccinations,” Erin McCloskey, assistant vice president for communications and marketing, said in a statement.

“I believe that it’s important to add that Saint Francis University was — and continues to be — very successful in the 2020-21 academic year while supporting in-person instruction and being fully operational as a community, despite the lack of vaccinations for everyone,” McCloskey said.

It’s the same story at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, which has a presence in Altoona, Ebensburg and Huntingdon, among other cities. The college is “encouraging and recommending students to get the vaccine,” but not requiring it, according to Director of Marketing and Communications Raymond Weible.

At Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, school officials are “doing everything (they) can to promote getting the vaccine,” despite not requiring it, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy McFarland.

“Right now, our stance is we are strongly encouraging all students to get the vaccine,” McFarland said. “Our director of health services is working with Mainline Pharmacy setting up two vaccine clinics on campus; one is going to be for students and employees, and there will be a second one that will be for the general public.”

According to experts, these institutions’ decisions not to follow Rutgers’ lead could yield scary consequences. WorkCare doctors Brittany Busse and Anthony Harris said failure to take a key step toward curbing infection rates will result in worse levels of widespread sickness and significant disruption to the academic year.

“We may be set up for another spike, not from the (virus) of old, but variants,” Harris said.

“We know variants are still happening globally. We may be in for a tremendous time as these students go out and then transmit to the communities.”

“(COVID-19) has been made very political for some reason,” Busse said. “Science shows that these vaccines are safe. The fact that universities are hesitant to require it just speaks to the fact that they’re buying into the pressure.”

Ultimately, according to Harris, colleges and universities might have to change their policies.

“It may not be a result of promulgated legislation,” Harris said. “It may be a result of continual infections and the universities getting shut down because they’re not able to prevent those transmissions from happening on campus. That will force their hand because at the end of the day, you’ve got to follow the money. You’ve got to have enrollment and the competitive advantage for universities will be how they help students get administration of vaccines.”

Otherwise, Harris said, “there will be parents who don’t send their kids.”

“That will affect universities in the pocketbook category, perhaps,” he said.

Busse also believes the institutions will reconsider their decisions. She said everyone is at risk, and the mentality that getting vaccinated is a personal choice is a mindset that people need to rethink for the greater good.

“Everyone sees this as an individual choice, but COVID-19 is a public health crisis,” she said. “This is something that affects all of us and it really requires a change of thought,” Busse said.

The vaccine, she said, is one of “the best weapons we have against that.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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