There is much about the coronavirus pandemic that is unprecedented, but this element is not new: Colleges and universities have long required its students to be vaccinated against certain diseases in order to attend classes and activities on campus.
And that should fully justify the move by the University of Hawaii system to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students coming to campus for in-person instruction this fall.
It’s a groundbreaking decision; UH is the first public institution here to mandate the vaccine for in-person participation. Others, especially those that serve large groups of people on an ongoing basis, should consider following suit.
There are already signs of pushback, indicating the likelihood of a rift, at least in the short term, separating those willing to be vaccinated from those who prefer to opt out.
But the larger community interest outweighs this unfortunate tendency. Incentivizing vaccinations can move Hawaii closer to suppressing the coronavirus as a public-health threat.
In some cases, admission to an activity restricted by vaccination also could be offered to the unvaccinated who get a negative COVID-19 test. But in the case of the 10 University of Hawaii system campuses, that would be impractical. The cost of routine testing would be too prohibitive for the university to absorb, and likely too expensive for almost any student.
The unvaccinated students would have the option of fulfilling requirements through online classes, which should be offered in full measure.
The implementation of the new mandate assumes that at least one of the three shots being administered under an emergency authorization gets full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer-BioNTech has formally applied for that approval, which is widely expected to happen this summer, said UH President David Lassner.
That way, he said, students who are reluctant to take a vaccine with only emergency authorization will have a fully approved option for meeting the requirement.
This would make the mandate comparable to requirements for UH health clearances for tuberculosis, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, varicella and, for first-year students living on campus, menigococcal conjugate. Those have been verified through official health records; presenting a vaccine card should be a comparable proof for COVID-19.
For all such mandates, exemptions for health or religious reasons are made available, Lassner added. Of the 48,000 students system-wide, 960 have an established exemption. Those wanting a COVID-19 opt-out would need to apply specifically for that new exemption, which makes sense.
Lassner on Monday acknowledged unsettled issues, including extending the mandate to faculty and all campus staff. Of the 361 universities and colleges with a student vaccine mandate so far, he said, about half also require them for employees.
A vaccine mandate should cover everyone on campus, but Lassner said the unions representing faculty and staff — University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers — will insist that UH negotiate those terms. All parties need to swiftly hammer out the agreement for the fall term.
In the wider community, overall objections to COVID-19 vaccines have been raised, loudly. But those who want the assurance of coronavirus control are pressing for protection just as urgently. If Hawaii is to reach a true post-pandemic life, the paramount concern right now must be to maintain public health. Like it or not, that means getting the vaccine.