What to do about COVID?

And what to do about college students this fall?

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

It has been a rough year for colleges and universities throughout the US, Canada, and, well, everywhere, in fact. Last spring forced the postsecondary sector to rethink how they do their work, much in concert with their K12 brethren. However, higher education at least had the advantage of more experience with online education than elementary and secondary schools.

This fall, it is expected that colleges open up normally, with few exceptions. As I write, over 230 million doses have been given across the US and 29.2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Canada, by contrast, has vaccinated only 3 percent of the population.[1] Even across the US, state-by-state analysis illustrates uneven vaccination rates, and, of course, they skew older. And this is where the challenge remains.

I read last week that the coronavirus is becoming a young-persons disease, meaning that those who are over 40 are most likely to have been vaccinated, or planning to get vaccinated, while those under 40, and especially those under 30, vacillate on vaccination. It is an extension of the Superman Syndrome: nothing can hurt them. I even have 20-something family members who have had COVID and are not planning to get the vaccine at the current time because they are “immune.” This is why it becomes an increasing problem for colleges and universities this fall.

To date, the research doesn’t tell us much about how much prior COVID infection will protect people in the future or how long the vaccinations will protect people. The latest studies show that 90 percent of people who have contracted COVID tend to remain immune from a second bout past six months (the current length of the study). On the vaccination side, we do not know the long-term impact, but we do know that people who received a vaccination during the Spanish Flu in 1918 showed antibodies still at work 90 years later.[2] This may not be the case for the current vaccines, but science gives us hope. A study last week found that the chance of contracting COVID after receiving the vaccine is 1:13,000. The odds of dying from COVID after receiving the vaccine are basically nil.   

College presidents, their boards, and certainly the staff and faculty have concern about allowing students back on campus who have not received the vaccine. Only recently have some states opened up vaccination to those who are 16 years or older (Pfizer only; Moderna requires people to be 18 or older). So the hope is that between now and fall that students get vaccinated.

The reality is, due to issues implied above, many students will not choose to get vaccinated. In some cases, students may have a hard time finding vaccines, but that is unlikely now that supply has met demand. But yesterday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced that public colleges and universities can require students to be vaccinated before allowing them on campus.[3] This will likely be fought in court, but as it stands, this is what will be required by Virginia colleges that choose this path. Already, Hampton University, an HBCU in Hampton, Virginia, has announced that it will require students to be vaccinated. The AG’s argument is that the university can make its own decision, and that it does not go against federal EEOC laws that would restrict such a decision. For Hampton University, they have already sent students the following notice:

“The University requires vaccinations like meningitis and varicella, etc., so requiring the COVID-19 vaccination is in concert with prior procedures to keep students, faculty, staff, as well as the community, safe.”[4]

In the bigger scheme of things, the postsecondary sector has the easier ride on this one. K12, however, is a different kind of mess in consideration that there are no doses for children at this time. Pfizer’s current trial is very promising for those aged 12-15, but there is no evidence yet for those under 12. Schools may have vaccinated staff, but schools can still serve as super spreaders to those who are not vaccinated. Just last week I spoke to a teacher in a southern US state who said she was “on the fence” about getting vaccinated as she has had some medical issues in the past. Thus, there still remains the issue of whether schools can mandate vaccination for staff members. Houston Methodist Hospital, which employs 26,000 people, has told staff that they must show proof of vaccination by June 7th or they will be suspended.[5] If they do not receive the vaccine in that two-week period, they will be terminated. If a non-profit hospital can do this, at question will be whether schools push this button or not.

The challenge in vaccine hesitancy is that those with lower levels of education are much more hesitant than others. A recent study found that 29 percent of college graduates were vaccinated compared to 13 percent of those without a college degree.[6] This is a complex issue, however, because a majority of people were vaccinated through their employer. Thus, those who are employed are more likely to get the jab, as are people up the income ladder.

Considering this pandemic effectively shut the world down as we know it, I’m a subscriber to the belief that everyone should be vaccinated—conspiracy theories and theorists be damned. The vaccine is built on prior SARS-based research, so we are confident it is completely safe. This is no “I Am Legend” scenario we are talking about, so let’s stop the chatter.

While people have some level of choice in their beliefs and personal safety, the greater good and the safety of the broader citizenry should trump these believes in most—if not all—cases. This pandemic has killed millions of people, including almost 600,000 Americans to date. It has rocked the worlds of families, forced people out of jobs, and put them on the financial edge—or over—due to the necessary closers. Even now, as we start to see wide reopening in our communities, we are also seen a further escalation in cases again. We are not done with COVID-19 by any means, so let’s not act like it.

Wear masks. Socially distance. Get vaccinated.


[1] https://news.google.com/covid19/map?hl=en-US&mid=%2Fm%2F0d060g&state=7&gl=US&ceid=US%3Aen.

[2] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/science-july-dec08-influenza_08-22#:~:text=The%20first%2C%20in%20the%20journal,virus%20circulating%20in%20their%20blood.

[3] https://www.pilotonline.com/news/education/dp-nw-hampont-university-vaccine-requirement-20210426-alam56zr7fad7cq7lpez37vqgm-story.html.

[4] http://docs.hamptonu.edu/student/20210414123904-13399-new_student_revised_letter.pdf_20210416112456.pdf.

[5] https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/26/us/houston-methodist-covid-vaccine-mandate-trnd/index.html.

[6] https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/dashboard/kff-covid-19-vaccine-monitor-dashboard/.

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