Are vaccine mandates for college students ethical?

Vaccines | FDA

By Sonal Mahindroo

With New York opening up its COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to include all college-aged students, regardless of preexisting conditions or employment, questions about return in the Fall 2021 semester have begun to arise.

Some colleges have already indicated that they will be requiring all students to be vaccinated by Fall 2021. Rutgers University, the first to make this announcement on March 25, is now joined by Cornell University, Brown University, Syracuse University, Ithaca College, the University of Notre Dame, Northeastern University, Fort Lewis College, Nova Southeastern University, St. Edward’s University, Duke University, and Roger Williams University.

While many other universities are expected to join this list, is it ethical for universities to require proof of vaccination for students to step foot on campus again? 

Mandating an experimental vaccine brings up several issues in medical ethics regarding autonomy.

Universities have noted that exceptions to the vaccine requirement are permissible because of medical or religious reasons, but some believe that the right of choice must be protected for each individual.

Megan Collins, attorney for Welch, Donlon, & Czarples PLLC, stated that private universities and colleges are well within their legal rights as long as they provide reasonable accommodations for students not willing to get the vaccine. For instance, Ithaca College is offering a virtual option for students who decline to comply with university protocol. 

College towns are of particular interest for vaccination regulation because they are COVID-19 hot spots. Health officials in these college towns (accounting for 10% of U.S. counties) noted that spikes in COVID-19 infection in surrounding communities were correlated with student outbreaks.

Most people who end up hospitalized or dead due to these outbreaks are members of the surrounding communities, not college students. Therefore, vaccinating students may help keep nearby populations safe. However, it is difficult to determine if there is a direct causation between the two without extensive contact tracing and studies. 

Vaccination might be the key to returning to the college experience that millions of students are paying for. Schools mandating vaccination are promising their students that mandatory vaccines come with perks such as full capacity occupancy and fully functioning facilities.

In fact, some schools are incentivizing, rather than mandating vaccination by offering some of these perks to only vaccinated students. For instance, Dickinson State University permits all vaccinated students to remove their mask on campus.

Given issues with freedom and autonomy in the vaccine mandate, incentivizing the vaccine might be the solution for universities in the upcoming semester.

Sonal Mahindroo is a student in a Media and Democracy class at St. Bonaventure University.

Categories: Jandoli Institute

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