Department of Health weighs in on mandatory vaccinations for college students

Alexis Rapoza

News Editor

Photo via ABC6

PROVIDENCE, R.I., -- On April 19, all Rhode Island residents aged 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination leaving higher education institutions to decide whether to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory.


Across the country college and university campuses have become hotspots for COVID-19 spread. In Rhode Island, outbreaks at schools such as Johnson and Wales and the University of Rhode Island last fall prompted campus closures and implementation of mass-testing sites at both schools. Fear of additional outbreaks and new COVID-19 variants has led many school administrators to consider mandatory vaccinations. However, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) does not anticipate the addition of COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of mandatory immunizations for college students.


Dr. Jim McDonald, Medical Director at the RIDOH, said, “Requiring a vaccine that’s been out less than four months, that’s going to get people nervous.” He continued, “It’s important for people to know there’s a space for dialogue; we’re interested in what people have to say. Right now, I’m not hearing anyone at the Rhode Island Department of Health talk about requiring the vaccine. That’s not where we are right now.”


Currently, three COVID-19 vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under an Emergency Use Authorization only, meaning that although the vaccines have gone through three phases of trials and results have been deemed safe by the FDA, they have been officially approved. EUAs speed up the process of vaccine development during public health emergencies by cutting out steps usually required for vaccine approval such as, obtainment of a Biologics License Application and allowing testing and production to happen simultaneously.


President of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island, Dan Eagan, said that the state’s eight private institutions would advocate for mandatory vaccinations providing science continues to prove they are safe and effective. He said, “I think it makes good sense for the presidents collectively that list of five or six [mandatory vaccinations] could become six or seven in the Fall.”


“Public policy, health policy leaders have indicated through their institutions, if they could get 80 percent of vaccinations across their student bodies, they could probably cause climate clusters, outbreaks in the coming semesters.”


John Taraborelli, spokesperson for Rhode Island College, said the college could continue to defer to RIDOH guidelines. He said, “We appreciate the guidance and resources RIDOH provides to assist RIC with reducing the impact of COVID-19 on campus. We will continue to advocate for immunizations on campus, especially for employees with student-facing roles. However, we do understand that that demand greatly exceeds supply in Rhode Island.”


Although the RIDOH does not plan to require college students to get vaccinated at this time, Brown University and Roger Williams have recently joined the growing list of schools across the country requiring their students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus.


Christina Paxton, President of Brown University, wrote in a campus-wide letter. “Starting in the Fall 2021 semester, Brown will require COVID-19 vaccines for all undergraduate, graduate and medical students who will be on campus or engage in any level of in-person instruction.” Paxton said, “Although aspects of our lives will continue to be influenced by public health considerations for quite some time, I am looking toward next year with a sense of optimism.”


For more information on COVID-19 vaccinations and RIDOH guidelines, visit covid.ri.gov

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