For the U of M, it’s time to mandate the vaccine — opinion

August 3, 2021 6:00 am

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. Department of Defense photo by E.J. Hersom.

As an incoming law student this fall at the University of Minnesota, I recently filled out paperwork to begin class documenting the dates of required vaccinations against tetanus, measles, mumps and rubella. 

Conspicuously absent? Any requirement for a vaccine against COVID-19.

Despite its peer institutions both here in Minnesota and across the country recognizing this unique public health moment and stepping up to mandate vaccines for incoming students, the University of Minnesota has sat back and allowed students to make their own choices about whether to protect themselves and others from this deadly disease — all at the expense of the most vulnerable among us.

Even if that may have been the right call two months ago, the Delta variant of COVID-19 raging through communities and rapidly picking up steam should now be a wake up call for every administrator at the University of Minnesota. It’s now time to change course and immediately implement a vaccine mandate on campus for all students, faculty and staff.

The law is clearly on our side. Federal and state law have consistently held that public institutions and employers may require vaccines with limited exceptions, and, in fact, only two weeks ago a federal judge in Indiana upheld a similar COVID-19 vaccine mandate at Indiana University.

Other schools are already doing the same. Just in Minnesota alone, plenty of colleges and universities are already implementing some form of a mandate (Augsburg, Carleton, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Macalester, St. Catherine, and St. Olaf among them). Even Minnesota’s peer public institutions in the Big Ten, like the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland, have moved forward with mandates.

At the national level, President Joe Biden recently announced a vaccine mandate for federal workers across the country because he knows time is of the essence. If we don’t act quickly, these variants threaten to undo over a year of progress we’ve all worked so hard to achieve. More people will get seriously ill and die, and the further mutation of the virus will render the vaccines less and less effective with every new emerging variant.

Attending, teaching at or working at a university is already stressful enough. Students trying to study, faculty trying to teach us, and frontline workers who serve us food and clean up after us do not deserve to have to deal with the added stress of showing up on campus every single day worried whether they are going to get seriously ill from a disease that is easily preventable from a vaccine. This is particularly true if anyone is medically ineligible for the vaccine and relying on others to get the vaccine, or has young children at home who cannot yet be vaccinated. 

Vaccine mandates can move the needle significantly forward: We know from polling there exists a significant percentage of currently unvaccinated Americans who will only get a vaccine if it is required by an employer or school. And as a destination that attracts transient students and visitors from every corner of the world, an institution of higher education like the University of Minnesota is uniquely vulnerable to the Delta variant, even if Minnesota statewide has been largely successful with its vaccination progress thus far.

Perhaps we may have reached a different conclusion weeks ago when it appeared this pandemic was behind us. But things have changed.

It’s time to follow the lead of President Biden, the Mayo Clinic, and peer educational institutions across the country and do the right thing: Mandate the vaccine.

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