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Full FDA Approval Triggers More Universities To Require The COVID-19 Vaccine


It's been a week since the FDA announced they fully approved Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. That decision has opened the door for a growing number of colleges and universities to mandate the vaccine for their communities as a new academic year gets underway. NPR's higher ed correspondent Elissa Nadworny has this report.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Many campuses have been waiting for the news. And once it came, the announcements started flowing - the University of Minnesota system, the Nevada system of higher ed, the University of Louisiana system.

RYLIE MARTIN: It's kind of a game-changer.

NADWORNY: Rylie Martin is the assistant director of the College Crisis Initiative, which has been collecting data on COVID-19 vaccination requirements at universities. In the last week, about 100 campuses have announced they're requiring the vaccine, bringing the total count to more than 800 colleges. Even without mandates, campuses say vaccines are vital to an in-person semester.

MARTIN: The vast majority of institutions have been highly encouraging or incentivizing their students to get vaccinated.

NADWORNY: About 70% of schools, according to their data. Vaccine rates on campus tend to be much higher than those at the state level thanks to schools' messaging and easy access to the shot. But for many institutions...

MARTIN: FDA approval is kind of the thing that's going to get them across the finish line to get their student vaccination rates up. Where this has really played out is in Ohio.

NADWORNY: There, public schools and universities were prohibited by a recent state law from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine under initial emergency youth authorization. Full FDA approval meant mandates could commence.

KRISTINA JOHNSON: It meant the world to me.

NADWORNY: Kristina Johnson, the president of the Ohio State University in Columbus, had plans in place - communications and email pre-written. Adding the COVID vaccine to their required inoculations came the same week 60,000 students were welcomed back to campus.

JOHNSON: Full FDA approval gives a lot of comfort to leaders that they should go and require this - keep their community, employers, employees, faculty and staff safe.

NADWORNY: The requirement means students now need their first dose by October 15. If they don't meet the deadlines, they'll have to take classes online. Being able to require the vaccine, especially as COVID cases are rising in central Ohio, is a big part of Johnson's strategy for keeping the campus open and safe.

JOHNSON: We've always looked at this through a public health lens, not a political lens. Vaccines have been around for decades and decades and decades. We know they work. We know that they keep people safe. So it's really our responsibility to get it out.

NADWORNY: Ohio, like many states, saw a political battle brew over vaccine requirements. But it hasn't been just politics holding schools back. There was uncertainty about making a requirement with a vaccine still under EUA, despite a strong federal appeals court ruling upholding a mandate at Indiana University. But FDA approval makes that legal foundation even stronger, says Dorit Riess, a law professor who studies vaccine mandates.

DORIT RIESS: Challenging vaccine mandates in university is going to be very, very hard.

NADWORNY: That's because vaccine mandates have been around for a long time. Schools require vaccines for things like meningitis, measles, mumps and rubella. And there's court ruling supporting their legality going back a century. But requirements are set by individual schools, which means rules vary across the country. Whether it's COVID or other vaccines, some schools are limited by state laws forbidding mandates. And today, many institutions have to contend with current political pressure.

RIESS: The pandemic put vaccines on the horizon of everyone, and it's playing out in making mandates more controversial.

NADWORNY: But Riess says most mandates at universities work.

RIESS: Most people comply with them. And they comply with them even without strong enforcement mechanisms. I think for many people, the vaccine mandate is kind of a, OK, I have to do this. Let's do this now.

NADWORNY: So even if full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine doesn't sway individual people to get the vaccine, Riess says...

RIESS: I think it will give universities more confidence to mandate. The mandate will mean that a lot more people get vaccinated.

NADWORNY: And that will make the whole community safer.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.