The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of one of the Covid-19 vaccines is a game changer for colleges on the fence about whether to require that students or employees be inoculated against the deadly virus. The full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine places that shot on the same level as other vaccines that colleges and universities regularly require. Experts say they expect to see more colleges moving to mandate Covid vaccines in the coming weeks.
“Colleges and universities can now say that the Covid-19 vaccine is just like any other vaccine and that’s why they are going to require it,” said Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor of education studies and public policy at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, an initiative that has been collecting data on higher-education institutions and their responses to the pandemic.
C2i collected data for about 2,500 institutions this fall and broke it down into several categories, including which institutions are requiring the vaccine, encouraging the vaccine, incentivizing the vaccine, and doing none of those things.
The majority, about 70 percent, of institutions in C2i’s data set are either requiring, encouraging, or incentivizing the vaccine — and roughly a quarter of them have vaccine mandates.
A handful of the institutions that C2i examined mentioned waiting until full FDA approval to require the vaccine. They include the City University of New York and State University of New York systems, the University of Richmond, and the University of Nevada at Reno, among other campuses.
“A lot of the institutions that are now on the fence and have been encouraging or incentivizing it are now going to really have some solid evidence saying why it’s a good idea to require the vaccine,” said Rylie Martin, assistant director of the College Crisis Initiative.
Vaccines required for residential college students include but aren’t limited to measles, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B, among others. But many colleges have said they cannot mandate the Covid-19 vaccine because it was previously only granted emergency-use authorization by the FDA.
The University of Minnesota system added the Covid vaccine to its list of required vaccinations on Monday, according to a statement from the Office of the President. Administrators cited FDA approval as the reason for their decision.
Louisiana State University was among the institutions that stated it would mandate vaccines once one of the shots was granted FDA approval. “In essence that has happened today; there will be a more-formal announcement tomorrow reinforcing that, but, as of right now, that proclamation made maybe a week or so ago is the reality here at LSU,” said William F. Tate IV, the university president.
“Now that the FDA has provided approval of Pfizer, we will be communicating logistics to the LSU community soon. We are reviewing the approval from FDA, but plan to implement the mandate on campus,” said an LSU spokesperson in an email to The Chronicle.
Eastern Oregon University and Oakland University, in Michigan, are among the other campuses that put vaccine mandates into effect Monday in response to the FDA’s announcement.
Full federal approval opens the door for institutions that “felt that their hands were tied for politics or for enrollment reasons or other reasons” to go ahead and require vaccines, Marsicano said.
Hailyn Chen, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, said that FDA approval doesn’t change much legally because Indiana University’s vaccine mandate, which was among the first tests of Covid-vaccine mandates’ legality, has been repeatedly upheld in the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. “Based on our reading of the Indiana University case, it did not seem that emergency-use authorization status was that significant of an impediment to a vaccine mandate.”
But Chen added that FDA approval does change public perception when it comes to vaccines. “It just takes away that argument that’s like, ‘Oh, this is just this experimental vaccine with only emergency use,” she said. “That argument has been taken away. This is a vaccine with full FDA approval.”