Colorado higher education leaders are in the thick of deciding whether their institutions will require students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall, weighing the public health benefits of immunization against concerns about personal liberties.
Two Colorado colleges, the University of Denver and Durango’s Fort Lewis College, have announced they’ll require students be vaccinated prior to the start of the fall semester.
Fort Lewis was among the first public institutions in the nation to announce a vaccine requirement, but it joins a growing list of colleges and universities across the U.S., including Rutgers, Brown and Cornell, hoping to achieve herd immunity on campus through inoculation.
In the biggest move yet, the University of California and California State University systems, which serve a combined 765,000 students, announced plans Thursday to require all students, faculty and staff be vaccinated this fall.
In Colorado, institutions such as Colorado State University, the Colorado Community College System and the University of Colorado — which saw one of the state’s largest virus outbreaks on its Boulder campus last fall — are deciding whether to follow suit.
Representatives of all three systems said they strongly encouraged students and faculty to get vaccinated, while discussions about requiring the shots were ongoing.
“We are not doing a statewide mandate — at least not yet,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “We want to see if we have to. If we have to, we might. We’re all talking about it. Right now, it’s up to campuses.”
But a rise in COVID-19 cases could force the state’s hand, Paccione said.
“Students have been transmitters in the community,” Paccione said. “To protect the community, we might have to.”
The number of active COVID-19 outbreaks in Colorado increased again this week, reaching a total last seen in late February, while the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations remained elevated. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 599 people were hospitalized statewide with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 as of Thursday. But new infections have been trending downward in the state.
Debate around the issue, Paccione said, lies with people’s concerns around getting the vaccine and their allegiance to personal freedoms.
“People have a bit of a libertarian streak,” Paccione said. “Our governor has a bit of a libertarian streak, as well.”
In a written statement to The Denver Post, Gov. Jared Polis applauded Fort Lewis and DU for their “efforts to ensure herd immunity on their campuses this fall.”
“The governor’s office is in conversations with institutions of higher education to determine how all of our institutions can return to in-person learning on college campuses this fall as safely as possible,” the statement said.
Sarah Watamura, who leads the University of Denver’s COVID-19 response, said for the private institution, it was important to be transparent about the vaccination requirement prior to the May 1 student decision date because families — those in favor of the requirement and those opposed — wanted to be able to make an informed college choice.
“It’s trying to balance personal freedom with the impacts of personal decisions on community health and our ability to be fully in-person this fall,” Watamura said. “We care about personal preferences and personal preferences about medical factors and would like to support that to the greatest extent we can. But we as an institution bear some responsibility for our community’s health and safety, and we bear responsibly for helping to have a vibrant return this fall. We have to weigh that against the cost of some infringement on people’s personal choices.”
Watamura said there are now ongoing conversations about what vaccine exemptions would be allowed and whether staff and faculty should be included, as well.
Colorado state law long has mandated college students be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella with exemptions possible due to religion and medical conditions.
Taylor Paumen, 20, a Colorado State University sophomore who lives on campus, said she would welcome a vaccine requirement at her Fort Collins university.
“It would make me feel a lot safer knowing that students around me are vaccinated,” Paumen said, adding she looks forward to returning to school sporting events. “At least for CSU and some colleges, they would probably get a lot more support than they would think on this. It would hopefully get us back on track to getting a little more back to a new normal.”
At Fort Lewis, part of the reason the college was the first in the state to announce a vaccine requirement was because of the student population it serves, said President Tom Stritikus.
“Many of the communities we serve were among the hardest hit by COVID, including the Navajo Nation and northern New Mexico,” Stritikus said. “We saw firsthand that even given the amazing work our faculty and staff are doing to keep campus open, COVID still came with mean social consequences for our students and the impacts of mental health on our students if they were placed in isolation. Even though we’ve been doing as much as we can to provide a normal experience, a broadly vaccinated student body helps us return to the things we love at Fort Lewis College — hands-on, inclusive, experiential learning.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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