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Hong '24: Brown should require COVID-19 vaccinations for the fall

Recently, Rutgers University announced that, religious and medical exemptions aside, it will require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus in the fall. Even with the end of the pandemic in sight, Rutgers has not taken for granted that its health situation on campus will get better. It has taken the lead to guarantee its students safer campus conditions for the fall. 

While Brown encourages its students, faculty and staff to receive the vaccine when it becomes available for them, it has not mandated that community members receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Though Brown has kept on campus COVID-19 positivity rates low, it would still benefit from requiring the vaccine for all on campus students in the coming fall. In fact, Brown Dean of Public Health Dr. Ashish Jha has recommended that every university have a vaccine requirement, calling vaccination “a civic duty.” Requiring a vaccine would help ensure much-needed certainty and safety on campus, while also encouraging other higher institutions to mandate vaccination. 

Currently, Brown plans to return to a two-semester model for the 2021-22 academic year. But campus could remain “de-densified” as it is right now, and it is unclear what public health measures will remain on campus for fall 2021. Although campus life will likely continue to see some restrictions, Brown should do its best to achieve as much pre-pandemic normalcy as possible in the fall. 

If this academic year has proven anything, it’s that social distancing, online learning and a shortened semester have left students struggling. Students are facing intense academic and emotional stress, often leading to mental health issues and burnout. As a first year, I have yet to experience “normal” Brown college life — all I hope is that it’s nothing like what I’ve experienced this semester. I do not wish the incoming class of 2025 an experience like mine. Furthermore, in a year rocked by uncertainty about changing public health guidelines, students need certainty about their upcoming fall semester. Mandating the COVID-19 vaccine would be the best way to alleviate stresses induced by the pandemic and allow all students a fuller college experience.

Some claim that schools can safely reopen without mandating a COVID-19 vaccine, operating under the assumption that most students will be vaccinated by the fall regardless of school requirements. But as we have learned over this past year, optimistic assumptions are often dangerous. One could argue that schools could safely operate without mandating any vaccines. But there is a reason why Brown and the State of Rhode Island already have vaccination requirements for other diseases: Vaccines work, and due to herd immunity work best when everyone gets them. Brown already requires students to prove that they have received the chickenpox and Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccines, for example. Brown can similarly require the COVID-19 vaccine, diminishing the possibility of any optimistic assumptions falling short. While institutions of higher education must cooperate with state guidelines as they pertain to vaccine mandates, Brown should work within its legal limits to make sure as many community members as possible are vaccinated by the fall. 

Granted, COVID-19 vaccines differ from other vaccines, such as the aforementioned chickenpox and MMR vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccines do not have full FDA approval — they only have Emergency Use Authorization. Some have expressed concern about mandating the injection of COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed and approved on an accelerated timeline. For example, some teachers recently sued the Los Angeles Unified School District for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The teachers assert that EUA-approved vaccines are “experimental” drugs, and that teachers cannot be required to take it. Others may outright doubt the safety of these vaccines.

Scientific evidence allays these concerns. EUA still requires COVID-19 vaccines to undergo rigorous testing. Vaccine manufacturers provide the FDA with “safety and effectiveness data,” and the FDA “carefully balances any known or potential risks with any known or potential benefits to the public.” The FDA has currently approved three vaccines — the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines — after comprehensively scrutinizing submitted data.

Evidence from the past few months also supports the claim that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Many Brown students and faculty have already received a vaccine, and worldwide, over 560 million people have received at least a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since December 2020. Doctors argue that, considering the huge number of vaccines given, scientists would have already detected long-term “common, uncommon and rare side-effects” if any existed. And while COVID-19 vaccines may cause minor short-term side effects, serious side effects are “very, very rare.”

Requiring Brown students to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination — while allowing for religious and medical exemptions — may also encourage other institutions to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, which is an important step towards herd immunity. A COVID-19 vaccine mandate communicates not only that the vaccine is safe, but that vaccination is an important step for everyone to safely return to pre-pandemic conditions. The impact of Brown’s decision, weighted by its status as a renowned university, could go far beyond the direct benefits of a more vaccinated community on College Hill.

If Brown adopts a vaccine requirement for on-campus students during fall 2021, it can better prepare for a return to normal conditions. The past year has been mired in changing public health guidelines. But Brown doesn’t have to share in that uncertainty. We can be proactive by mandating the COVID-19 vaccine, ensuring that our campus is safe and healthy in the fall.

Jaehyun Hong ’24 can be reached at jaehyun_hong@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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