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Pennsylvania State University is holding firm on its plans to recommend but not require vaccination against COVID-19 on campus this fall, despite a growing chorus of calls from faculty and students for a mandate.
“While we are not currently requiring vaccinations, Penn State is not impartial when it comes to getting vaccinated,” Penn State president Eric Barron said Tuesday during a virtual town hall on fall COVID protocols. “The university’s stance is that everyone who can get a vaccine should do so as soon as possible to attain very high vaccination rates on all Penn State campuses.”
Penn State officials also announced Tuesday that the university would follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masking indoors for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, on Penn State campuses that are located in counties with substantial or high rates of viral transmission, as defined by the CDC.
For campuses located in areas with low or moderate transmission, the university is requiring indoor masking for unvaccinated individuals and recommending it for those who are vaccinated.
The town hall occurred days after a Penn State student died from complications of the virus. The Centre Daily Times reported that 20-year-old undergraduate student Neil Patel died over the weekend following a months-long battle with COVID-19. Patel is the second known Penn State student to have died from the virus, following the death of Juan Garcia, a 21-year-old student, last summer.
In recent days, faculty and students have upped their urgency in calling on the university to require COVID-19 vaccination, as more than 600 colleges nationally have done.
Many of Penn State’s peer universities in the Big 10 have mandated COVID-19 vaccines, including the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan, as well as Michigan State, Northwestern and Rutgers Universities. A federal appeals court upheld the legality of Indiana University’s vaccination requirement in a ruling Monday.
On Friday, the leaders of the University Park Undergraduate Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Association sent a letter to Barron and the Board of Trustees calling for mandatory vaccination this fall. The letter cites resolutions passed this spring by both the Undergraduate Association and the Faculty Senate recommending a vaccine mandate.
As of Tuesday afternoon, organizers said more than 800 faculty members had signed an open letter organized by the Coalition for a Just University calling for a vaccine mandate, mandatory masking and other steps.
The coalition, which is made up mainly of faculty but also includes student and staff representation from across different Penn State campuses, called the university’s stance “unacceptable” in a press release issued after the town hall and announced plans for a statewide faculty meeting to determine a course of action.
Local government officials have also added their voices to the chorus calling for a vaccine requirement.
The borough council for State College, which is home to the flagship University Park campus, voted Monday to endorse an open letter of support for faculty and student calls for a vaccine mandate, according to The Centre Daily Times.
“I am tired of hearing magical thinking about medicine, from a major university with a major hospital and med school attached to it,” Councilwoman Theresa Lafer is quoted as saying. “So our students somehow will not get sick, and they will not bring this back to the people living in the community -- that’s nonsense. Clearly, the people who make this decision don’t live in this community and do not care about this community. Penn State, at its most unneighborly.”
The town hall with Barron and other senior university administrators did not include a live question-and-answer session. Some who were following along on social media were unimpressed with the university’s approach of appealing to the goodwill of students and employees to get vaccinated.
During the town hall, Penn State officials reported data from anonymous surveys of employees and students regarding their vaccination status.
More than half of all Penn State employees responded to the survey, and 92 percent of those who responded said they had been vaccinated, according to Lorraine Goffe, vice president for human resources.
Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, said that 42 percent of all students -- and 54 percent at the University Park campus -- have responded to a survey, which, unlike the employee survey, remains open through Friday. Of students who have responded, 77 percent have said they’re fully vaccinated.
“We’re heartened by that bit of information,” Sims said. “We’re mindful the survey might have a response bias built into it, but we still think that this is a valuable data point.”
Penn State has incentivized vaccination by entering students and employees who provide proof of their vaccination status into weekly drawings for $1,000 cash and other prizes, such as a football signed by Penn State coach James Franklin.
During the town hall, Penn State administrators did not explain why they have opted to recommend and incentivize rather than require vaccination, as some of Penn State's peer institutions in other states have done.
While colleges in many states are restricted by law or executive order from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, this is not the case in Pennsylvania, where Democratic governor Tom Wolf vetoed a Republican-backed bill, Senate Bill 618, that would have barred state-funded colleges from requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
A tracker maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education lists 40 Pennsylvania colleges or universities that have required COVID-19 vaccines for students or employees, but all are private. (A single public university that’s listed, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, rescinded its requirement after the Legislature passed Senate Bill 618.)
“Obviously each state and each university faces different circumstances and that makes them unique in what they decide to do,” Barron said. “What has PSU decided to do? Well, first, make it easy to get vaccinated, and second, to incentivize getting vaccinated. And now, new rules -- unvaccinated must mask in our buildings, for our residence halls … you’ll be tested on your arrival and there will be testing for those who have not uploaded vaccination information on a weekly basis. There will be surveillance testing as well, and most important, there will be significant consequences for those who are unvaccinated who do not follow the testing requirements we put out.”