This fall, one of Brigham Young University’s campuses will not be like the others.
In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, students at BYU-Hawaii will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before they can return to class. It’s the only one, though, of the three BYU locations to set that condition.
BYU’s main school in Provo, Utah, and the BYU-Idaho campus will have no such mandate. “The change to our immunization requirement applies only to BYU-Hawaii,” confirmed Laura Tevaga, the spokesperson there.
All three campuses have the same owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And they’re all private schools that have the power to enforce a vaccine requirement. So why is there a difference within the BYU system?
Church leadership instructed administrators at each school, Tevaga said, to decide what was best based on local conditions and attitudes, rather than making a blanket rule. BYU in Utah and Idaho chose only to “strongly encourage” that students and faculty get the vaccine, not require it. Ensign College in Salt Lake City, also controlled by the church, did the same.
And it’s not a huge surprise, with their largely conservative student bodies that have previously fought a former requirement to wear a face mask on campus, with some students dropping out in protest over the rule.
Tevaga, though, believes the stronger call in Hawaii comes down to a much different approach there toward the virus — influenced by both longstanding culture and politics more than the church. And there has been little pushback by the students.
“Hawaii is a unique place, and it’s taken a hardline approach with COVID,” Tevaga told The Salt Lake Tribune. “The state has been closed down forever. It’s just slow, slow, slow to reopen now, and for good reason.”
Up until a month ago, people on the islands were required to wear masks even outdoors. They’re still mandated most places inside, and an estimated 96% of residents comply, according to a survey from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Tourists must also test negative for the virus before getting on a plane to go there.
Utah and Idaho are Republican states and Hawaii’s politics are as blue as the ocean. That has influenced the response to fighting the virus, Tevaga said. And BYU-Hawaii has largely fallen in line, despite its more conservative church leadership back in Salt Lake City.
It added its vaccine requirement shortly after the University of Hawaii System, which oversees 10 public colleges there, created its mandate that students get the shot. While other private colleges here and there in the United States — such as Brown University and Duke University — have done the same, it appears to be one of the few public systems to do so.
(There are, of course, medical and religious exemptions there and at BYU-Hawaii.)
BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III in a statement: “The decision to add this vaccination requirement was reached after careful consideration of available data about COVID-19 vaccination safety and efficacy and consultation with experts in medicine, public health, and epidemiology. This action promotes the safety of our students and our community.”
Kauwe added that the decision was supported by the school’s trustees and LDS Church leadership, which has offered “support for vaccinations in recent statements.” While that’s true, a spokesperson for the faith declined to comment, saying he would leave discussion on the matter to each school.
Tevaga said she’s glad the church allowed each school to “be responsive to local conditions, students and laws.”
And it’s more than just politics, she noted. Hawaii’s history as an island also contributes to the stricter, more aggressive take on combatting COVID-19.
Already before the pandemic, the school required vaccines — such as the tetanus shot and the meningococcal conjugate vaccine — that the other BYU campuses don’t. Students have to provide a note from their doctor confirming they got those shots before they can attend classes in person. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one more addition, and it hasn’t faced much opposition.
“We’ve always had different vaccines that are required here,” Tevaga added.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a Democrat, pointed to the legacy of invasion with the island in an interview with TIME magazine as part of the reason. Indigenous people, he noted, have seen firsthand what the spread of disease looks like when white people arrived. And now they take precautions to fight against that.
Foreign ships had carried epidemics there in waves, including cholera, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough and smallpox.
The American military overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. According to the U.S. Census, by 1920, the Native Hawaiian population had dwindled to just under 24,000 from as many as 600,000.
Caldwell said people there have not forgotten that past: “We have a culture here that comes from the first peoples, the native Hawaiians. The term kuleana … means responsibility, and it does pervade the people here in Hawaii.”
Part of its strength in combatting COVID-19 has also come from being an island, isolated from the rest of the world. That means Hawaii can better control who enters the islands.
It hit its peak for the virus at about 350 cases per day last year. With three times the population as Hawaii, Utah and Idaho each had more than 3,000 at times — 10 times more infections.
With the college vaccine requirements, Hawaii doesn’t expect to see another increase in cases when students come back for classes.