The Delta Curveball

Some colleges are expanding vaccine requirements or reimposing mask mandates in response to spread of Delta variant and new CDC guidance. Other institutions are finding their authority to mandate mitigation measures limited.

July 29, 2021
 
Screenshot -- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map showing community transmission rates of coronavirus.

The surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant and low vaccination rates is leading some colleges to expand vaccine mandates or reinstate face-masking requirements, even as public colleges in a number of Republican-controlled states continue to be constrained by executive order or law from taking such steps.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance Tuesday recommending that all individuals regardless of vaccination status wear a mask while in public indoors if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission -- a characterization that currently applies to broad swaths of the U.S., including much of the South and Midwest. The change reflects a reversal from earlier CDC guidance in May that said individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 did not need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings.

In response to the guidance, the University of Memphis announced it would require that masks be worn indoors and in places where social distancing is not possible. The university is strongly encouraging students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but said in its Wednesday announcement that as a public university in Tennessee, it does not have the ability to require vaccination. University officials say the authority to do so lies with the governor and the state Legislature.

In Florida, where a state law prohibits public or private colleges from requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of attendance and enrollment, State University System of Florida leaders sent a joint letter to students on Tuesday strongly recommending they get the vaccine.

Florida State University is planning on resuming “normal, pre-pandemic” operations Aug. 1, with masks being recommended but not required.

“While our authority is limited by the State of Florida and the university cannot mandate vaccines, testing or mask wearing, we do promote these mitigation efforts,” Sally McRorie, Florida State provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Kyle Clark, vice president for finance and administration, said in a written message to faculty and staff Wednesday posted on the university's website. “We encourage all students, faculty and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine if they haven’t done so already. We also recommend wearing masks indoors, especially in situations where there are large gatherings that make social distancing difficult. And of course, anyone who is feeling ill or suspects they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should be tested.”

Also in Florida, Nova Southeastern University recently announced it would require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The university originally had a vaccination requirement for students, but it had to drop the student requirement after passage of the Florida law.

"Planning for the start of the 2021 fall semester/term, we are facing the renewed challenge of the rise of the Delta variant, which has dramatically increased the number of COVID-19 cases across the country, particularly in South Florida," Nova Southeastern president George L. Hanbury II said in announcing the change earlier this month. "In response, I must consider what more we could be doing to maintain the safety of our employees and students across our various locations, workspaces and teaching/learning environments."

More than 600 U.S. colleges are requiring COVID-19 vaccination for students or employees, according to a list compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education. These colleges are largely located in states where the majority of residents voted for President Biden in 2020.

Emory University, in Georgia, announced Tuesday that it was expanding its COVID-19 vaccination requirement -- already in place for students -- to apply to faculty and staff.

"The COVID-19 vaccines -- which Emory researchers played a role in developing and testing -- have been highly effective and are our strongest defense against the virus," Emory president Gregory L. Fenves said in a universitywide message. "Yet the pandemic is not over. With the spread of the Delta variant and rising COVID-19 cases in Georgia, we must remain committed to protecting the health of the Emory community, and it starts with getting vaccinated."

California State University and the University of California both recently announced plans to require COVID-19 vaccination for all students, faculty and staff coming to campuses this fall. Both systems had previously planned to wait to enact a requirement until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to a COVID-19 vaccine -- the three vaccines publicly available are approved through the FDA’s emergency use authorization process -- but moved up their timeline to mandate vaccination for fall.

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“The current surge in COVID cases due to the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant is an alarming new factor that we must consider as we look to maintain the health and well-being of students, employees and visitors to our campuses this fall,” CSU chancellor Joseph I. Castro said in a statement announcing the change Tuesday.

Duke University, which already had a vaccine requirement in place for faculty, students and staff for the fall, said Wednesday it was reinstating the requirement that individuals wear face masks while indoors in all Duke-owned or -leased buildings other than residence halls starting this Friday, July 30. University officials cited “the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in North Carolina related to a combination of the Delta variant and the number of people who remain unvaccinated” as the reason for the change.

“While we know this is a disappointing turn, we make this move now based on the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Duke’s own infectious disease experts in hopes of containing potential outbreaks that may limit our ability to continue other activities during the fall semester,” Sally Kornbluth, provost and Jo Rae Wright University Professor, and Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for administration, wrote in a message Wednesday to faculty, students and staff.

The politics of potentially reinstating campus mask mandates are challenging in some states. The Texas Tribune reported Tuesday that Republican state leaders are holding their ground in prohibiting local schools and governments from requiring masks. Multiple Texas universities lifted their mask mandates in May after Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order prohibiting governmental entities or officials from requiring face coverings.

In Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, issued a press release Tuesday saying that Nebraska’s “return to normal” would not be “interrupted” by the new guidance on mask wearing from the CDC.

“I will reiterate my expectations for schools and universities in the fall,” Ricketts said. “Schools should convene in person without mask or vaccine requirements.”

A spokesperson for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which lifted its face-covering requirement for unvaccinated individuals in May and is incentivizing but not requiring vaccines, said the university’s local county health department has not recommended changes to COVID-19 policies at this time. Lancaster County, where Lincoln is located, currently has a high rate of COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC.

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