Regina Sung, Contributing Photographer
Yale will impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all undergraduate, graduate and professional school students who return to campus next fall and is considering a similar measure for faculty and staff, University President Peter Salovey and University Provost Scott Strobel wrote in a Monday email to the Yale community.
The announcement comes on the heels of Chief of Student Health Christine Chen’s Friday news that Yale Health had secured enough doses for all students to receive Pfizer vaccines at the Lanman Center over the coming weeks. With the Monday decision, Yale joins other universities including Duke, Brown and Wesleyan, which will also be requiring their students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall term. The decision to mandate vaccinations raised complex legal and public health questions surrounding the best path forward out of the pandemic.
Salovey and Strobel wrote in the email that students are encouraged to receive the vaccination as soon as possible, now that it is available to them, with “reasonable” accommodations for religious or medical exemptions. For students currently on a leave of absence or learning remotely, who might not have access to the vaccine, the University is making contingency plans to vaccinate them upon arrival next fall. Additionally, a working group that includes Yale public health experts is evaluating whether to require vaccines for faculty and staff, in part given that union contracts prohibit change without discussion. The group expects to make recommendations in the coming weeks to University leaders, who will make a final decision in June.
“Although the course of the COVID-19 pandemic over the coming months remains uncertain, vaccination is the strongest tool for preventing transmission of the virus,” Salovey and Strobel wrote in their email. “There is abundant evidence of the vaccines’ effectiveness and growing confidence that vaccines will be widely available by early summer.”
Students who plan to study or work on Yale’s campus during the summer are also expected to be vaccinated “as soon as vaccinations are available to them.”
Nanci Fortgang, director of Yale’s vaccine program, told the News on Sunday that Yale’s vaccine program has received word that it will get a direct allocation of Pfizer supply from Connecticut’s Department of Public Health, in addition to a smaller indirect supply from the Yale New Haven Health system, for the coming weeks. These provisions, she said, are meant to ensure that everyone is vaccinated before leaving campus for the summer.
“We have specifically geared 4 large clinics to all students in order to get them two doses before the end of the semester,” Fortgang wrote in an email to the News. “We have a large supply and will be opening the clinics to the entire university community early this week. Lanman has excellent through-put and can easily administer 1000 doses of vaccine per clinic.”
Albert Ko, epidemiology department chair at the Yale School of Public Health and a member of the Yale Public Health Committee, said he thinks it makes sense to require vaccinations for students, as they are in a “high-risk situation in a congregate, residential dorm.” Additionally, vaccinations are the best tool for students to have the full university experience, Ko said.
“We are in extraordinary situations with the pandemic and the cost both directly and indirectly,” Ko said. “Extraordinary measures need to be taken.”
But the challenge of vaccine hesitancy still remains, and there is some debate as to whether mandates are the best way to overcome it. Yale’s Public Health Committee, chaired by University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler, had been weighing whether to recommend a vaccine mandate for next fall to the University leaders — Spangler, Strobel and Salovey — who make the final call.
The committee came to a consensus that there should be a mandate once the University had secured a sufficient supply of doses and experts were confident that the vaccines are safe and effective, according to public health committee member Richard Martinello. Committee members’ thoughts were bolstered by the precedent that the University already requires students to receive a large number of non-COVID-19 vaccinations, Martinello said.
For their part, the majority of Yale students have raced to secure the vaccine as soon as Connecticut residents over 16 became eligible on April 1. As of last Friday, 60 percent of Yale students had signed up for or received their first vaccine dose, according to an email from Spangler.
Ko noted the challenge that “coercive methods” to overcome vaccine hesitancy, such as vaccine mandates, sometimes do not work as well as incentives do. Associate professor of epidemiology and critical care physician Luke Davis echoed that people with a “more libertarian” mindset can resist mandates. He said it is best to first give people the option to ask questions and decide on their own whether to receive a vaccine.
“This is where I think some central debate is about whether you mandate or [wait] and try to pull all the levers in getting people vaccinated and then only use mandates as a last resort,” Ko told the News on Saturday.
Additionally, there are legal questions as the three vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and, despite being temporarily under pause, Johnson & Johnson — have FDA emergency use authorization, but not full FDA approval. The statute that establishes the EUA includes that people must be informed of the choice to accept or refuse the product, the consequences of refusing the product and any available alternatives. Still, one or more of the vaccines may be fully FDA-approved by the fall, according to Inside Higher Education.
The committee considered this question and received assurances from the University’s counsel that a mandate was legal, Martinello said.
To combat vaccine hesitancy among younger people, who often are not at risk of adverse COVID-19 outcomes, Davis said that it is best to emphasize how they can protect other community members by getting vaccinated themselves. Ko said that when students receive the vaccine, it safeguards faculty and staff, who might be from more vulnerable populations.
Upon arrival to campus next fall, Yale will vaccinate students currently on a leave of absence or learning remotely, who might not have access to the vaccine this spring. In his March email to the campus community, University President Peter Salovey explained that some students might be allowed to come to campus before the fall term begins to receive their vaccines and build up immunity before participating in in-person instruction.
As of April 18, over 1.7 million people had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut.
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Update, April 19: The story has been updated with additional context from Richard Martinello, a member of the public health committee.