By Steven Bonini
President F. Javier Cevallos announced students will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccination for the fall 2021 semester in an April 26 email.
The Council of Presidents voted unanimously to mandate the vaccine on all nine state university campuses, according to Cevallos.
The other eight sister institutions are Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Salem, Westfield, and Worcester state universities as well as Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
In his email, Cevallos said any students “conducting research on campus, living in residence halls, or participating in campus life activities” must be fully vaccinated.
He highlighted the vaccines’ efficiency and said he believes the vaccine supply will “outpace demand” in the coming months.
Cevallos added appointments will eventually be more readily available to the public.
In an interview, Cevallos called this “an evolving situation,” and the University is trying to figure out what the safest way is for the campus to reopen, emphasizing that many other institutions are requiring vaccines as well.
“UMass Boston requires vaccines. UMass Amherst is strongly encouraging vaccines. Some of the private institutions are requiring vaccines,” he said.
“Everyone seems to be suggesting that we should be requiring vaccines. We decided that it was time to do that,” he added.
To help students get vaccinated, Cevallos said the University may work with Walgreens, as it does during the flu season, to bring a vaccination site to campus.
“We have to continue to explore options as the summer moves on and as vaccines become more prevalent – more available,” he said, adding the goal would be to have a vaccination site on campus by “end of August – early September.”
Some students have already reached out to Cevallos with concerns about receiving the vaccine, and he said many of them are looking for some form of exemption.
“Any vaccine – you have to have exemptions allowed,” and any students with “religious convictions” or health concerns may be exempt from receiving the vaccine, he said.
“I’ve had about, I’d say, about eight emails from students. A couple of them a little more adamant about not wanting to get the vaccine, but most of them are just trying to figure out if we can have an exemption and an accommodation, and of course we will,” he added.
“By and large, I think that most of the campus – in order to be safe – I think everybody should be [vaccinated] and we are encouraging faculty and staff to be vaccinated as well,” said Cevallos.
When students do receive their vaccination, Cevallos said they should upload their vaccine certificate to the student health portal, as is typically required of other vaccines.
Regarding faculty and staff, he said most of them are happy about the mandate as they “feel safer knowing that students will be vaccinated.”
Cevallos said the issue of exemptions for faculty and staff will be “bargained” with the unions.
Ann McDonald, chief of staff and general counsel and secretary to the Board of Trustees, said the decision to require the vaccine came after the Department of Public Health announced it would not require universities to mandate the vaccine at this time, allowing Cevallos and the other presidents on the council to make their own decisions.
“The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is usually the authority – the administrative authority – that sets the bar for all of the requirements for vaccination or other public health requirements,” she said.
“But when the presidents consulted with them, they had not determined that they were going to set a COVID vaccine requirement for higher ed students. The next question was, ‘If you’re not going to do that, do we have the authority to do that?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ They do not have the sole authority to go ahead and make those determinations,” McDonald added.
She said the COVID-19 vaccine falls under an “emergency use authorization,” which, according to the FDA [Food and Drug Association] government website, is a special approval to “allow the use of unapproved medical products, or unapproved uses of approved medical products in an emergency to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions.
“Certain statutory criteria” have to be met, the website states, “including that there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.”
“It has still gone through FDA approval,” said McDonald. “It just hasn’t gone through the full approval. It’s gone through this emergency use authorization and the presidents, again, evaluated that before making the decision.”
The University is currently facing no lawsuits since the mandate announcement was made, she said, and her hope is that by answering students’ questions about the requirement, a lawsuit can be avoided.
“We’re trying to figure out if we have a student who comes forward who doesn’t want to get the vaccine, and there’s a legitimate reason, what do we do to still keep that student in the Framingham community?” she asked.
“There is still work on our part being done to try to figure some of those things out. I would rather do that than face a lawsuit,” McDonald added.
Ilene Hofrenning, director of Health Services, said even with students fully vaccinated next semester, the University is still anticipating COVID-19 testing as well as some mask wearing on campus.
“We certainly will be doing symptomatic testing, and we now have the rapid antigen test, which we’ve used a few times this spring. So if people are symptomatic, we can give them an answer right away – whether it’s COVID or not,” she said.
“I imagine that if we have a group of students who have not been vaccinated, that we might consider testing them – doing screening testing with them on a regular basis,” Hofrenning added.
She said, “Depending on the prevalence of COVID,” the University may continue to do some form of random testing as well.
Hofrenning said mask wearing will depend on state mandates and CDC guidelines, but they will probably have to be worn “a lot less” than they are now. However due to COVID-19 variants, she said there may still be some concerns.
Before the announcement of the mandate, Hofrenning said she heard from a number of students and parents who were hoping the University would require students to receive the vaccine.
After the announcement, like Cevallos, she is now hearing from students who are concerned or do not want to receive the vaccine.
“The data shows that, for one thing, the vaccine is very effective,” she said, adding, “It’s effective in preventing severe disease” and it’s “effective in preventing hospitalizations.
“Millions and millions of people have gotten it around the world, and it has proven to be safe for everybody,” said Hofrenning.
She added there are some concerns about the long-term effects of the vaccine, but “like everything in life, it’s weighing risks versus benefits.
“At this point, the risk of getting COVID and getting sick from COVID is much higher than any kind of risks that you would have from the vaccine,” she said.
Noelle Meunier, a sophomore business major, said she agrees with the University’s decision to require the vaccine and if somebody doesn’t want to receive it “to help keep others safe, then they can stay home.
“Public spaces should be safe for public use,” said Meunier, adding, “When we were kids, we had to keep our socks on to play on the playground at McDonald’s. It was so everyone could play without the risk of getting foot fungus. This is the same idea.”
Meunier has received both doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination and said, “It was a bit scary” to feel the negative effects, but overall, she was glad she got vaccinated.
Bradlee Nadeau, a junior food and nutrition major, said he feels “indifferent” about the decision.
“I have already received the vaccine, and I just want things to return to normal. If mandating the vaccine will do that, then by all means, I think everyone should have to get it,” he said.
Even so, Nadeau added he doesn’t believe mandating the vaccine is the “best decision.
“I believe that students were deciding to get it on their own, but now that it is mandatory, I think many students will now be against it. People don’t like to be forced to do things,” he said.
He said he received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and did not experience any negative reaction or symptoms.
Stefano Hernandez, a sophomore English major, said he agrees with the decision to mandate the vaccine, but doesn’t like the idea of forcing it on students.
“Based on how little I’ve heard of issues regarding COVID and FSU, I do believe individuals should have a right to decide for themselves if they should take it,” he said, adding, “Due to the lack of immediate danger, I don’t see why the vaccine should be forced onto others who may have concerns over their health and how they handle medications.”
Hernandez received the Moderna vaccine and said he did feel nauseous as well as a little fatigued, but did end up feeling better after some rest.