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Maryland universities brace for influx of COVID immunization records from students, employees

Maryland colleges and universities are adjusting computer software, hiring additional staff and considering third-party vendors to manage the influx of COVID-19 vaccination records from students and employees ahead of the fall semester.

Since 14 schools across the state announced in the spring that they would require students and employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before the fall, administrators have devised plans for verifying compliance to the mandates and processing exemption applications.

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Some officials who are standing up these systems say schools have collected immunization records for years, but are doing so now on a larger scale to include employees. And verifying each of the records will take more manpower than some schools are equipped to handle.

Unvaccinated students who do not receive an exemption face not being allowed to live on their university’s campus or to access campus facilities. Some also may face cancellation of their fall and spring course registration.

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“The responsibility that is put on universities is significant,” said Kevin Banks, vice president of student affairs at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “We’re in a space that we haven’t been in before.”

Smaller universities like Morgan State and Frostburg State in western Maryland are increasing staffing levels in their health centers and human resources departments to offset the workload that will come with reviewing vaccine cards for thousands of people.

Students are naturally tech-savvy and already submit immunization records to Morgan State annually, Banks said. However, the vaccine mandate also extends to employees, some of whom may have barriers to presenting their records.

“You need a place for people to call if they have problems uploading,” Banks said. “Not everyone is tech-savvy. You have to put in a mechanism to walk them through that process, particularly some of our employees. Some have flip phones.”

Once universities have the records, verifying their authenticity can be a cumbersome process, particularly for international students who may need to connect a university representative with the medical provider in their home country, he said.

Officials also are choosing which vaccines produced and accepted outside of the United States should be accepted. Morgan State will accept vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, Banks said.

Morgan State, which has outsourced its COVID testing program to a third party, briefly considered doing the same with its vaccination mandate. Officials were in talks with the North Carolina-based screening company CastleBranch to help certify vaccination statuses, Morgan’s student newspaper The Spokesman reported July 7.

University officials are no longer considering using an outside firm to verify vaccinations, Banks said.

Frostburg State officials also said they are prepared to provide extra staffing for the human resources department and student health center if needed. The Allegany County university grappled with outbreaks of COVID-19 cases on campus last fall.

Larger universities, some of which have connections to medical systems, have leaned on existing programs and databases to solicit vaccination records.

Johns Hopkins University developed web-based systems to track vaccination records that are later verified by a live person — a process similar to the way the university tracks flu vaccinations, said spokeswoman Jill Rosen.

And University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore County students and employees are being asked to authorize Maryland’s health information exchange to release their vaccination records to the university or to upload the records themselves. Both institutions are targeting unvaccinated individuals with reminders and perks for getting poked.

College Park officials are sending regular, targeted emails to unvaccinated individuals to remind them of the vaccine mandate. And UMBC is analyzing its vaccination data to identify subgroups where rates need to increase.

UMBC students have designed a social media campaign aimed at encouraging peers to complete their vaccine verification. And the university is holding weekly drawings for students and employees with prizes like parking passes or $100 toward their meal plan.

With all of the resources colleges are putting into managing COVID vaccine mandates, Banks said he hopes it won’t be necessary forever.

“Hopefully, this is maybe a year and a half process,” he said, “because I will tell you it’s a lot of hands-on work.”

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