More than 1,000 University of Utah students and staff sign petition for a vaccine mandate

New university President Taylor Randall says the U. is seeking ‘greater flexibility’ from state leaders to help the school manage its pandemic response.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melanie Hall administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Braeden Daniels, at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center at a vaccination clinic at the University of Utah, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. Some U. students now want a vaccination requirement to attend classes in person.

More than 1,000 students and staff have signed onto a petition calling for the University of Utah to make the COVID-19 vaccine required for those on campus this semester.

In their plea to university leadership this week, they say the flagship institution for the state has “an ethical responsibility” to help minimize spread in the community and keep those attending classes in person as safe as possible. They urge the school to be an example to others in the ongoing pandemic.

One student who signed onto the online letter commented: “As a leading research university in the nation, you should be leading the way.”

Another added: “Every day, I fear for my family’s health because there’s nothing more terrifying than losing the people I’ve grown up with. Mandating vaccines is the right step forward.”

Earlier this year, the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature banned public K-12 schools and colleges from requiring the coronavirus vaccine for attendance. But that only applied to vaccines being used under emergency authorization.

On Monday — also the first day of classes for students at the U. — the Food and Drug Administration granted full authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That opens the door for universities here to mandate that specific vaccine, if administrators want to, though it likely would still be a fight in the conservative state where the governor has voiced his opposition to immunization requirements.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines still cannot be mandated because they remain under emergency authorization. Colleges here also are currently banned from mandating masks.

But in a statement to students this week, new university President Taylor Randall noted that administrators are “talking to state health and legislative leaders, as well as the governor’s office, to discuss masking policy in indoor spaces on campus, including classrooms and other common areas.”

With the full approval of the Pfizer announced vaccine this week, Randall added, “we are working with state leaders to explore greater flexibility for the university to manage its pandemic response. We hope to have more news on the outcome of these conversations later this week.”

A university spokesman acknowledged it won’t do anything that’s “not in compliance” with state leaders. “We’re doing everything we can to do the right things for the right reasons and work within state law,” said Chris Nelson.

The school currently has signs up encouraging students to wear masks. And it hosts both vaccine sites and testing sites on campus.

The 1,000 students and staff who had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon say a vaccine requirement with Pfizer is worth the fight. They see it as the only option left with the more contagious delta variant spreading and intensive care units across the state filled up.

“We know that vaccination is the only way that we are going to get out of this pandemic and that vaccination significantly reduces the risk for severe infection,” their letter reads.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan Low administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Margret Maumau at the University of Utah on Monday, March 1, 2021.

They want students who refuse to get vaccinated to be pushed into online classes.

Other colleges have done that nationally, including many in California, as well as New York University and the University of Oregon and Oregon State University — the latter two of which are both in the Pac-12 athletic conference with the U.

Westminster College in Salt Lake City, which is a private school, has mandated the vaccine for its students and staff. It is the only school in the state to do so. Westminster and Brigham Young University in Provo are both requiring masks. Because they are both private, they can.

Meanwhile, the U. operates the largest medical school in the state with an adjourning hospital. Many doctors there have pushed for mask mandates and stronger vaccine rules.

‘Beyond frustrated’

Margot R., a junior at the U. from Seattle, is immunocompromised because of medications she has to take to control her arthritis and Crohn’s disease.

“They suppress my immune system so it will stop attacking itself,” she said. “But it makes me more susceptible.”

It specifically leaves her vulnerable to severe infection if she gets COVID-19. The Salt Lake Tribune agreed to identify her by her first name and initial for privacy to discuss her medical condition; she also fears retribution at the U. for speaking out. Her identity as a student was verified by The Tribune.

She has received the coronavirus vaccine and the booster shot, but those are less effective for individuals like her. She has also taken tests that show she doesn’t have many antibodies to fight the disease, she said.

Margot, who is a biology major and has studied immunization, said she would like the U. to mandate the vaccine for all of its 33,000 students and 23,000 staffers to make everyone safer. She believes in the science.

“It would make it a lot easier to go to class and focus on my material instead of worrying the entire time if someone is going to get me sick,” she said. “And I know that I’m not the only immunocompromised student on campus.”

For now, she is working with professors for accommodations — but not all of her classes are offered online. She is in an organic chemistry course that’s in-person only, and there are about 200 other students crammed into the auditorium. Margot said roughly two-thirds of her classmates aren’t wearing masks. She has no way of knowing which are vaccinated and who could be positive for COVID-19.

She sits at the front of the room, away from the other students in a desk near a door for air flow. It’s the best she can do, she said.

“To some people, it sounds dramatic when I say it’s life or death,” she added. “But for some of us on this campus, it really is. … As a whole, the university seems unable or unwilling to stand up for vulnerable students, and I am beyond frustrated with it.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor R. Randall, middle, reacts after the University of Utah announced that he was the new President of the University of Utah, during a news conference, on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

The U. mandated masks last year, when that decision was left up to each college and before it was banned.

In his statement to students, Randall did not mention suggesting or pursuing a requirement. And Nelson, the spokesman, said just having the Pfizer vaccine approved makes it more of a challenge to require.

“There’s some logistical issues,” he noted, questioning how students and staff could be assured of getting the Pfizer shot.

Meanwhile, the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the eight public colleges and eight technical colleges in the state, will convene Thursday morning to also discuss options. It is likely that no decisions will be made during that meeting.

“As of now, they’re taking it into consideration,” said spokeswoman Trisha Dugovic.

A second petition started Thursday asked for vaccines to be required across the entire system. It has more than 400 signatures.

U. tracking vaccine rates

Randall noted in his message that the university’s data shows that 70% of students and more than 80% of faculty are already vaccinated — that’s roughly the level needed for herd immunity, according to experts.

Nelson said that data comes by running the U.’s student database against the vaccine database from the Utah Department of Health. The school does not receive the names of specific students who are immunized. It just gets a percentage of matches, to protect privacy.

Those from out of state, about a quarter of the students at the U., are asked to self-report whether or not they have been vaccinated.

The same verification is done — and students agree to it when they sign up for classes at the U., Nelson said — with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination requirements. (Religious and cultural exemptions are allowed with those; and the same standard vaccines are required at most college campuses in the state.)

Nelson noted: “The Student Health Center electronic medical records system automatically queries the Utah state vaccine registry for all students.” That is allowed because both are state health entities.

Students who launched the vaccine petition are organized under Unsafe U, a group that initially formed in response to student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s murder on campus but which has since pushed for a number of measures to make school safer in several ways.

They question the U.’s report on vaccination rates and say they suspect the numbers are lower, closer to the 54% fully vaccinated count for Salt Lake County. They worry that’s not enough as cases climb.

“I think it’s really important to try to protect students, especially those who are vulnerable, so everyone can feel comfortable on campus,” said Carlene Coombs, a junior at the U. who signed the petition. “It’s really about keeping everyone safe.”

Sam Hanson added his name this week, too. He said after three days of classes, he has three friends at the U. who are already out with COVID-19. Will Loxley, a junior, said some professors have also had to move classes online due to exposure.

“I hope this petition will push the school to do what’s right,” Hanson said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melanie Bills, a nurse, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to University of Utah student Eddie Overbay in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.

Katherine Forth, a sophomore, is attending the school at the same time her mom is working toward a master’s degree in information systems. Her mom has multiple sclerosis, though, and is susceptible to getting seriously ill from the coronavirus, so she is not taking any classes in person this semester, without a mask or vaccine mandate to help protect her.

Forth said it is frustrating for her family. There are courses her mom needs to take to finish her program, but they are not offered online. And Forth has to be extremely careful while she is out and on campus so she doesn’t bring back the virus to their house.

“Unfortunately, the university hasn’t been accommodating as it could be,” Forth said. “This could postpone my mom’s graduation.”

She said she understands that the Legislature has limited what the U. can do and controls the school’s funding. But she believes lawmakers are “out of touch with public university students.”

For now, she is wearing a mask and has been vaccinated. But a vaccine mandate from the U., she believes, would show the community something about compassion.

Forth said: “I think people forget that we need to take care of each other.”