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The COVID vaccine should be required for U of I students

Although the 2020-21 academic year just finished, we’re already thinking about what the fall could look like with tens of thousands of University of Illinois students returning to Champaign-Urbana for in-person instruction. We want those students to stay healthy, and in turn keep our community healthy. Therefore, we feel compelled to call upon these institutions and the Illinois Department of Public Health to require the COVID vaccination for higher education students this coming fall, academic year 2021-22.

Immunization requirements in schools with a residential component are not new; currently the U of I requires students provide proof of immunization against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DPT, DTP, DT, DTap, TD, TDAP), and meningococcal (bacterial meningitis). We have over a year’s worth of data illustrating the contagiousness of COVID-19 and its variants, and the ways in which the disease can cause death, long term health problems, and test the limits of our medical infrastructure. 

At the U of I, testing faculty, staff, and students multiple times per week is financially unsustainable, even as those with proof of vaccination are no longer required to get tested. Outside of the costs of operating multiple test sites and running thousands of tests per week, COVID has caused the financial loss of tuition dollars and revenue from myriad on-campus programming. 

As the state moves into Phase 5, a full return to “normal,” it is expected that come September, Memorial Stadium, the State Farm Center, and Huff Hall will be packed with fans of Illini sports. Academic departments want to bring in guest speakers, visiting artists, and job candidates. Students, faculty, staff, and the community want to experience the wonderful programming at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The prestige of these institutions is dependent upon the ability to maintain impressive programming and recruit talent, and that means earning esteem and revenue. With required vaccinations, these events and programs could happen more safely.

Though the U of I considers itself a “preeminent institution,” it’s worth considering what its peer institutions are doing. At the time of publishing, many of the places the U of I considers peer institutions (including multi-campus university systems) have declared that they will require students to be immunized this coming fall. Some of them include: 

  • California State University system
  • University of California system
  • Colorado State University system
  • University of Colorado system
  • Yale University
  • Georgetown University 
  • Indiana University system
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
  • Princeton University
  • Rutgers University
  • City of New York system
  • State University of New York system
  • Duke University
  • Wake Forest University
  • University of Virginia

Plus these institutions in Illinois:

  • Columbia College Chicago
  • DePaul University
  • Dominican University
  • Knox College
  • Loyola University Chicago
  • Northwestern University
  • Roosevelt University
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • University of Chicago

As you can tell, it’s a mix of public and private colleges and universities, with massive university systems (like the California and New York systems) and smaller colleges alike. 

According to an email from Robin Kaler, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs at the U of I:

Pursuant to Illinois law, the Illinois Department of Public Health determines the immunizations that are required of Illinois college and university students. At this time, IDPH has not taken action to require proof of COVID-19 immunization. So as of now, the university is not planning to require vaccination for students for the fall semester.

Of course, this could easily change — it’s only May, after all. On the other hand, it is already May, and if students need to make arrangements to get vaccinated, they should have enough notice to do so this summer. For students who aren’t able to get the typical immunizations where they live, they can get them at McKinley Health Center; the same should go for COVID. There are plenty of COVID vaccine clinics available in Champaign County (including the U of I campus), so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine a scenario in which a campus clinic continues into the fall semester. 

As we’ve said about a million times over, the only way to return to the things we like to do is for people to stop giving the virus bodies to inhabit (and mutate in). This means widespread vaccination to prevent illness and overwhelming our health care systems, and, of course, death. 

It’s possible that IDPH is waiting for the vaccines to receive full FDA approval (Pfizer has already submitted the request) before issuing guidance to state colleges and universities. If that’s the case, there are two things that can be done to work toward that goal: 1) Lobby your elected representatives, the IDPH, and the U of I/Parkland to require students to be vaccinated; and 2) Continue to dialogue and encourage the unvaccinated people in your life to get vaccinated. We are hopeful that the IDPH will make the announcement this summer, so we can all breathe a little easier this fall.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer. 

Top image from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Facebook page.

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