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Colleges should require students and faculty get vaccinated against COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Johns Hopkins University students play spike ball on campus during a warm March day. The university this month became the first in the state to require that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to classes in the fall.
Johns Hopkins University students play spike ball on campus during a warm March day. The university this month became the first in the state to require that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to classes in the fall. (Amy Davis)

This month, Johns Hopkins University made a decision on a question that many colleges and universities are thinking hard about: whether to mandate that students get COVID-19 vaccines, and provide proof of it, before returning to campus for classes in the fall.

“Given the importance of mass vaccination in protecting our community, we will require all students coming or returning to our campuses this fall, and who do not require religious or health exemptions, to be vaccinated,” the leadership team, including President Ronald J. Daniels, wrote in a letter to the Johns Hopkins community April 9. “We strongly urge, and may soon require, all faculty and staff to be vaccinated as well.”

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Tracking by the Chronicle of Higher Education finds that Hopkins is one of around 30 universities in the country, and the only one in Maryland, to commit to the mandate, which is likely to be controversial given the politicization of the vaccine. Already data has found that red states are getting vaccinated at a slower pace than blue states as talk about vaccines has turned into a debate over liberty and freedom rather than recognition of a public health need. Nearly 45% of Republicans have said they don’t want to get a COVID vaccination.

But vaccination is our most important tool to end the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control, alongside social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and choosing well-ventilated gathering spaces. It provides immunity to this deadly disease without having to contract COVID-19 itself, and brings the population closer to a level of protection that can slow, and eventually stop, its spread. The vaccines cannot give you COVID, they offer minuscule risk — much less than the risk presented by the virus — and they open the door to reuniting with our friends, family and colleagues in person sooner.

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Hopkins’ early decision shows officials there understand what is needed to protect people, get the economy back on track and return to normalcy both on campus and off: “Ensuring that the overwhelming percentage of our community’s population is vaccinated will greatly reduce the risk of the virus’s spread on our campuses and will also protect our neighbors in Baltimore,” the leadership team wrote.

We wouldn’t expected anything less from a university with world-renowned medical and public health schools. Others should follow its example — and go further, also requiring faculty and staff to receive vaccinations before the start of the fall semester. If students have to comply, so should the people who will stand before them in class each day.

The University System of Maryland has yet to issue guidance on COVID vaccination for its universities. The Board of Regents voted last week to give Chancellor Jay A. Perman the authority to make that decision. He said he supports the idea but must talk to other university presidents. We encourage those presidents not to put up a fight. Mr. Perman summed up pretty well why students need to be vaccinated: “I believe the unique nature of our campuses requires it. Our campuses have a heavy presence of congregate housing, where physical distancing is enormously difficult. We have heightened risk of spread due to the multiple interactions students and others have each day, throughout the day — in their classes, in extracurricular activities, at social events. And we have limitations in how well we can prevent unsafe gatherings.”

And those students interact with the rest of us. As Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said during a meeting with The Sun editorial board Monday: Young people “are killing parents and grandparents.”

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The University of Maryland and other universities already require students to provide proof that they have been vaccinated for certain diseases and should add COVID-19 to that list — as well as offer it at the campus health center as they do other vaccines. Hopkins said it would offer shots on campus to help accommodate students.

Some colleges around the country say they are waiting for COVID-19 vaccines to earn full FDA clearances before issuing a blanket requirement. Currently the shots are under “emergency use authorization,” a designation used to speed up availability during public health emergencies. While there is some threat of court challenges because of this, we suspect some universities may be erring on the side of being overly cautious, or even using this as a stall tactic, given that the vaccine is now available to all American adults.

Many college students have already proven they aren’t the most reliable at social distancing, masking up or skipping parties to protect everyone’s health. The decision to vaccinate should be taken out of their hands.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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