Three of Utah’s largest universities will require students who attend classes in person to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The University of Utah, Utah State University and Weber States University announced Friday that they will begin putting into place immunization mandates for their campuses as the coronavirus continues to spread. The decisions are a major development in a conservative state that has, on the whole, been hesitant to regulate personal choices during the pandemic.
They are the first publicly funded colleges in Utah to move forward with requiring the vaccine.
“This global health crisis has transformed two years of our lives and continues to impact our communities,” wrote U. President Taylor Randall in a message to students about the decision. “Many of us have lost loved ones or seen the health of friends and family permanently changed by this virus.”
Under state law, mask mandates still remain prohibited for higher education here. And universities have only recently been allowed to have vaccine mandates.
The U., Utah State and Weber State said the logistics of their new requirements are still being discussed; more details are expected next week.
“We’re working through what it will look like,” said U. spokesman Chris Nelson.
The mandates at the schools only include students — not faculty or staff — at this point, though there will be further discussions about that. And there are not yet set deadlines for when those enrolled in in-person courses will need to get their shots. Those taking only online classes don’t have to meet the requirement.
There will be medical, religious and personal exemptions permitted, as all public colleges currently allow for other vaccine requirements, such as the shot for measles, mumps and rubella. That’s required by the state.
Nelson and the spokespeople for USU and Weber State said students will likely be required to show proof of vaccination or an approved exception form before spring classes start in January.
Amanda DeRito at USU noted: “We want to make sure that we roll it out in the best way possible.”
Earlier this year, the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature had banned public K-12 schools and colleges from requiring the coronavirus vaccine for attendance. But that rule 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 opened the door for universities here to mandate that specific vaccine, if administrators want.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines still cannot be mandated because they remain under emergency authorization. Students, though, don’t have to get a specific shot to fulfill the requirement.
Other universities undecided
The mandates garnered a joint statement of support from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson.
“The law allows Utah’s universities to require vaccinations as long as there is a path for students to submit personal exemptions and attend in-person classes,” they said. “We support this balanced approach and look forward to keeping students, faculty and staff at our colleges and universities safe this year.”
At the U., the state’s flagship college in Salt Lake City, the mandate could include up to the 33,000 students there. Nelson, though, noted that about 67% have already been vaccinated.
That leaves roughly 9,000 needing to get the vaccine.
A petition had started earlier this week asking the school for a mandate, and more than 1,400 students and staff had signed it. One student, who is immunocompromised, said, “To some people, it sounds dramatic when I say it’s life or death. But for some of us on this campus, it really is.”
The group that started the callout, UnSafe U, heralded the decision for a mandate Friday, saying: “Thank you for doing the right thing, University of Utah.”
At USU, there are 28,000 students across about half a dozen campuses. Most attend the location in northern Utah’s Logan, and then the locations in central Price and southwestern Blanding after that. The school doesn’t have an exact estimate for how many will need to get the vaccine now with the requirement.
Weber State doesn’t have that number either. But it has about 30,000 students.
“We want to do our part to help the state combat increasing rates of infection and hospitalizations,” said Weber State spokeswoman Allison Barlow Hess.
Together, the three schools represent 91,000 of the 189,000 higher education students in Utah. That’s almost half of the public higher education population.
The Salt Lake Tribune contacted the remaining five public universities and colleges Friday. Most said they were still weighing whether or not to move forward with a vaccine mandate.
That includes Utah Valley University, Salt Lake Community College, Southern Utah University, Dixie State University and Snow College.
“Right now the messaging that we have shared is that we’re encouraging vaccines and we’re encouraging people to wear masks, knowing it’s a personal choice,” said spokeswoman Marci Larsen at Snow College.
“We haven’t yet decided,” added spokesman David Bishop at SUU.
Salt Lake Community College sent out an email to students and staff noting that it will also consider possible requirements, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads.
Dixie State said it is not requiring vaccines “at this time” and plans to continue assessing the virus situation before taking action.
Faculty at UVU wrote a letter to Gov. Cox this week, asking for a mask mandate for colleges; he has only indicated that he is opposed to vaccine mandates. The school in Orem is the largest college in the state with 41,000 students. But President Astrid Tuminez said she was hesitant to take any strong actions during a meeting of the Board of Higher Education this week.
The chair of the board, which oversees all eight public colleges, had earlier Friday sent a letter to all university presidents encouraging them to explore a vaccine policy for their students.
Harris Simmons wrote: “The Board views vaccinations as an effective method to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep our campuses open. As you evaluate the needs of your campus and region, we encourage you to consider requiring COVID-19 vaccinations — free of charge — for your students.”
Ultimately, though, he noted that it would be left to each campus to decide.
A similar and second petition run by faculty was also started this week to get all schools in the system to require the vaccine. It had more than 2,100 signatures by Friday afternoon.
‘We will emerge stronger’
Before the pair of announcements Friday, one other school — Westminster College in Salt Lake City — had instituted a vaccine requirement. It did so prior to the full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, and was able to because it is a private institution.
Both Westminster and Brigham Young University in Provo, also a private college which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are requiring masks. They are exempt from the Utah Legislature’s ban on that, which only applies to public colleges in the state.
Last academic year, every college in the state was able to require masks and most did.
Of any college in Utah, BYU has had the most COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. It has tracked 5,476 among students and staff from March 2020 to before this fall semester. The school has been battling a more conservative student body that has thrown parties and some students that have withdrawn over public health measures.
USU followed with 3,355 cases prior to the current school term. It detected high levels of the virus in the dorms last year as classes started by testing wastewater. And nearly 300 students were quarantined in their rooms.
Emilie Wheeler, a spokeswoman at Utah State, said this year, there are also several students quarantined — though not as many — as they’ve started moving in. Those individuals have not yet been vaccinated.
Classes at the school start Monday.
“We are really encouraging students that, if they want to be able to attend in person activities and classes, they need to get the vaccine,” Wheeler said.
USU has said, though, that it will not require immunization to attend football games this fall.
All three schools — the U., Utah State and Weber States — will host on-campus vaccination clinics to make it easier for students to get their shots.
Weber State has had about 650 cases COVID-19 reported since March 2020 up until the new semester started. The U. has had 3,062.
With the University of Utah operating the largest medical school in the state with an adjourning hospital, many doctors there have pushed for mask mandates and stronger vaccine rules.
Nelson, the spokesperson there, said that state leaders intend to discuss whether to require health workers, like those at the U., to be vaccinated next week.
Now that the U. has a vaccine mandate for students, there are only two schools left in the Pac-12 athletic conference that do not have that requirement: Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. The state law in Arizona forbids them from following suit.
Vaccine mandates are becoming more common at colleges across the nation, though, including many in California and Oregon on the west coast, as well as New York University and others to the east.
At the U., President Randall wrote: “We encourage each of you to continue to treat each other with empathy and understanding as we work through the ever-evolving circumstances of this pandemic. We will emerge stronger at the end of this school year as we pull together now as one University of Utah family.”
—Salt Lake Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.