On Thursday, July 29, North Carolina reported 3,268 COVID-19 cases, the most since late February. Both cases and hospitalizations have steadily increased over the past few weeks due to the highly transmissible delta variant. Only 61% of adults across the state have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and these weak numbers are, in part, driving the rampant spread of COVID-19.
It’s no secret that the best way to flatten the rapidly spiking curve is through vaccinations. All three vaccines available in the U.S. — Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are highly effective against the delta variant: 97% of hospitalized coronavirus patients have not been vaccinated, and less than 1% of vaccinated individuals have experienced breakthrough infections. It should go without saying that the current surge of cases in the United States is not due to breakthrough infections — it’s a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Before the recent rise in cases, we may have been on our way to a somewhat normal semester. Despite conflicting advice from the CDC and public health officials regarding mask-wearing and other preventative measures, vaccinated individuals around the country began to resume pre-pandemic activities and planning for an in-person return to work or school. However, as the delta variant tears through the country, several businesses have either halted their plans for a return to the office or instituted vaccine mandates. Why should universities be any different?
A memorandum from the UNC System in late April maintains that a “lack of clear legal authority” at the state and federal level prevents NC universities from mandating another immunization. A lack of clear authority, though, is not the same as an inability to mandate vaccines on a university’s own accord. Moreover, the memorandum reads like Peter Hans and the UNC System played hot potato with the issue: Knowing that requiring the COVID-19 vaccine would place it in an uncomfortable position, it passed the problem along to someone else.
However, the legal fight for university-mandated vaccinations had continued since the publication of the memorandum — in mid-July, a federal judge ruled that Indiana University would be able to uphold its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, citing a decision in the “interest of public health.” And although nine states passed laws forbidding the requirement of coronavirus vaccines, North Carolina lawmakers have yet to do so.
Furthermore, numerous public universities across the country have mandated immunizations for students hoping to return in the fall, including the California State University System as well as all University of Michigan campuses. Across North Carolina alone, 15 private colleges and universities have required the coronavirus vaccine, including Elon University and Duke.
If NC State was to execute a similar requirement without the barrier of a state law prohibiting vaccine mandates, potential legal proceedings would most likely be very similar to Indiana University’s and lead to the same conclusion: universities can require vaccinations for the interest of public health without treading on individual rights. Additionally, it’s possible to approve vaccination exemptions for religious or medical reasons now — there’s no reason a university-wide coronavirus vaccine mandate would change that particular policy.
In fact, any mandate would include a clause excluding those who are unable to receive immunizations. In the United States, these groups include those with autoimmune disorders or allergies to vaccine ingredients and, as of right now, children under the age of 12. If the bulk of the remaining population is inoculated, herd immunity naturally slows down infection among the unvaccinated community. When our community struggles to hit a vaccination rate of 50%, however, this logic does not hold. By continuing to push and require immunizations, we help not only ourselves, but those around us.
The biggest roadblock to requiring coronavirus immunizations across UNC System schools seems to be embedded within state laws. According to North Carolina legislature, only the Commission for Public Health is authorized to add vaccinations to those required by law — and, by default, the commission will only consider vaccines that have obtained the full approval of the FDA. And, as of early August, none of the three vaccines authorized for emergency use by the FDA have been granted final approval.
The FDA is aiming for full approval of the Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day, nearly a month into NC State’s fall semester. It goes without saying that in that time, hundreds of unvaccinated students could get sick. Without a steady increase in immunizations that would inevitably be brought upon by a campus-wide vaccine mandate, in-person classes could shut down for the fourth semester in a row. Clubs and organizations might be banished to Zoom once more, and sporting events would be played to empty arenas, devoid of passionate fans. Waiting on full FDA approval of any coronavirus vaccine could cost money, time and ultimately our sanity.
It might still be a sore spot for many Wolfpack fans, but perhaps the baseball team’s untimely end can be a vaccine lesson for all. Forced to forfeit its place in the 2021 College World Series after eight players tested positive for COVID-19, fans were dismayed at the lost opportunity for a national championship. Although four of these eight players were vaccinated, this situation would have been vastly different if the entire team had been vaccinated — there would have been a lower chance of contracting COVID-19 and less severe symptoms among infected individuals.
The thought of another year of athletics being ravaged by the coronavirus is one students wouldn't have to worry about if vaccines increased across campus, beginning with an immunization mandate from the university. For right now, the least we can do is ask unvaccinated students to understand the clear benefits of becoming inoculated and, ultimately, to roll up their sleeves.
NC State Student Health Services is providing vaccines to faculty, staff, students and alumni of NC State as well as immediate family ages 12 and up at Talley Student Union. If you are not yet vaccinated, you can make an appointment through this link.
Vaccinated students can also upload their vaccination status on HealthyPack Portal and be exempt from surveillance testing and, in most cases, mandatory quarantines from contact tracing.
This unsigned editorial is the opinion of Technician’s editorial board and is the responsibility of the editor-in-chief.