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This week, Wesleyan University of Connecticut hosted its first on-campus booster vaccination clinic. CJ Joseph, a freshman who was always looking for something to specialize in, wasted no time in enrolling.
“I was like, ‘Damn, yeah, I’ll be the first person to have it,'” said Joseph, who was actually one of the first students to get the shot at Wednesday’s clinic at Beckman Hall.
Convenience was a major selling point. “I have a lot of work to do,” explains Joseph. “Being able to walk a good four minutes or so just to get my COVID shot made it a lot easier for me and I didn’t have to spend the money to get an Uber to go to Walgreens or CVS.”
The Liberal Arts Campus, which hosts about 3,000 students, will require COVID-19 booster shots for those on campus this spring. It is one of the first colleges to do so.
“There is no good reason to hesitate,” says Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. “Some people don’t like to be the first. But in this case, being the first for public health doesn’t seem like a particularly risky place.”
More than 1,000 colleges across the country have demanded COVID-19 vaccines for students and staff this year, according to data from the Chronicle of higher education.
With the CDC’s recommendation that all adults receive booster shots, colleges must now assess how to incorporate the extra dose into their pandemic response plans.
For now, many schools are just encouraging students and staff to get the extra dose. Among them is Duke University, one of the first to adopt a vaccine mandate on campus last spring. Rutgers, widely cited as the first US university to require COVID-19 vaccinations, issued a statement saying, “We have no imminent plans to require reminders for any member of the community.” But, the administrators encourage “everyone to take advantage of the booster injections to increase their personal protection against the virus”.
For a small college, a callback requirement was an easy decision
To Wesleyan, Roth says some colleagues questioned making it a requirement, insisting that compliance would be high anyway among a student body that was already almost fully vaccinated.
He says demanding the recall makes it a social norm rather than an individual decision. “The majority of our people would have had the recall without the encouragement,” he says, “but we want to raise the rate as high as possible.”
He points to other vaccine requirements on the college campus, such as meningitis and measles, mumps and rubella, noting that much of the ambivalence he sees comes from the politicization of the COVID vaccine. “It seemed like our obligation,” he said.
CJ Joseph, who is also at high risk due to asthma, is grateful for this clear message.
“I really appreciate the need for us to get our booster shots,” Joseph said, “because I feel like there are people out there who sort of see the next few shots as a” Oh, whatever. I don’t really need you to get it. ‘ ”
The mandate, Joseph says, along with the ease of access, makes the campus feel more secure.
About an hour after Joseph received the booster, Hallie Sternberg, a history and French student, lined up to get hers. She saw friends in line; she caught up with them to talk about the Thanksgiving vacation and the next bite they were preparing for.
“People are excited and ready to end it,” she told me after getting the hang of it. “Everyone says to themselves, ‘I’m just going to show that I won’t be sick. [with side effects] because we don’t have time. We have finals. I have presentations next week and articles to do the week after, so I’m just trying to get rid of them. ”
Will more campuses need a booster?
One question that colleges and universities have yet to answer is: Will the CDC update the definition of what “fully vaccinated” means, given that boosters are now encouraged for all adults? “Fully vaccinated, this term is extremely important in determining what it means for the community,” says Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 working group. “If, in fact, the CDC says that being fully immunized means having a booster within six months of getting your vaccine, for example, then colleges can include that in their requirements.”
Her organization will provide guidance to colleges once that happens, but in the meantime, she recommends colleges set up campus booster clinics and encourage their communities to get an extra dose.
“Colleges are well prepared to do callbacks,” she says. They “have a captive population, and the stakes are there: we want students to go back to school and we’ve heard it time and time again from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the students.”
She points out two complicating factors: staffing and timing. A recent survey by the American College Health Association found that the top two concerns for academic health centers were staffing and burnout, due to the intensity and duration of the pandemic.
When it comes to timing, there isn’t much left of the fall semester until finals and winter break. “Timing is so critical, and it has been throughout this pandemic,” Taylor said. “So, are you starting a recall clinic now?” Or do you do it in January or February, when students come back for that spring semester? “
These, she says, are the decisions the colleges are making right now.