BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) – Louisiana’s higher education officials are encouraging tens of thousands of students to get COVID-19 vaccines before returning for in-person instruction next fall, but they do not plan to require it.
LSU Interim President Tom Galligan released a statement late Monday saying that the school could not require vaccinations given that federal regulators approved the vaccines for emergency use without completing full safety investigations.
Dr. Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, cited the same reason in saying that he did not plan to require vaccinations before students return in the fall.
The universities in Louisiana are making their decisions amid a growing national debate about whether colleges can or should force students, faculty members and staff to be vaccinated.
Forty-six universities around the country have announced plans to require all students to be vaccinated before they return in the fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. They include some of the biggest-name private schools like Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Notre Dame and Johns Hopkins as well as Xavier University in New Orleans.
Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship state university, and two smaller schools are the only public universities on the list so far.
Henderson said that trying to require COVID vaccines given how quickly federal regulators approved them to try to bring the pandemic under control.
“Mandating fully authorized vaccines is difficult,” Henderson said in an interview. And with the COVID vaccines, “We are still learning about the long-term efficacy.”
“We will work diligently to influence as many as possible to be vaccinated, then work with public health partners on additional safeguards,” he said, noting that a state mask mandate remains in place.
Galligan said LSU officials were encouraged that more than 10,000 students and employees had already gotten the vaccine, and he strongly urging the others to do so before the fall to provide a safer campus.
LSU has more than 34,000 students on its main Baton Rouge campus and branches with thousands of other students in other cities.
The Louisiana Legislature requires university students to show proof that they have been immunized for diseases like for measles and meningitis before they enroll, though students can request waivers for religious and other reasons.
But given how politicized mask-wearing and even the COVID vaccines have become, lawmakers are unlikely to require students in Louisiana to take the COVID vaccines.
“No, it won’t happen,” said Rep. Tanner Magee of Houma, the second-ranking Republican in the Louisiana House. “The political climate right now with vaccines, just the hysteria around it, won’t allow for any sort of mandate,” he said in an interview.
In distributing the vaccines, he added, “We honestly have some legislators who think that we really are implanting 5G chips into people.”
The Louisiana Department of Health has not mandated that Louisiana residents take the vaccine, and public universities follow health guidelines from the Health Department, Galligan said in an interview.
He said the LSU Board of Supervisors discussed a vaccine requirement but was not interested in going ahead without a mandate from the Health Department and given that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had “shortened its normal approval processes” to deal with the health emergency posed by the pandemic.
“So because of that, I think we all feel more uncomfortable mandating,” Galligan said.
While students are expected to be back on campus for mostly in-person classes, Galligan said in the interview that the school would allow faculty members who are worried about their own health to teach their courses online in the fall.
Officials at some of the 46 universities that plan to require vaccines have said that they believe the dangers posed by new COVID variants and a further spread of the disease supersede any concerns about the shortened vaccine approval process.
Lawyers say this issue of whether schools can mandate the vaccine is likely to be decided in courts.
Louisiana university officials are leaning toward masks and physical distancing protocols to ensure safety and respect individuals’ rights.
Louisiana’s universities have been holding COVID-19 vaccination events to help more students, faculty, and staff get vaccinated. They hope to reach herd immunity, as that would allow them to lessen health restrictions in classrooms, athletic events, and dorms.
Henderson said the UL System expects about 70-80% of its population to be vaccinated by the fall.
A recent survey by researchers at LSU found that 43% of Republicans in Louisiana plan to refuse to take the vaccine. Thirteen percent of Democrats also said they did not plan to get the vaccine, and together, those hesitant to take a vaccine total 32% of the state’s population.
The dean of the LSU School of Dentistry recently mandated COVID vaccinations for the fall but then backtracked after protests. He decided instead that anyone without a vaccine would have to wear a mask.
Galligan said he believes in the vaccines’ level of protection and that there are good reasons for everyone to take the vaccine no matter their political affiliation.
“We’ll look at mask orders or additional testing possibly,” Galligan said. “That’s one of the things that I think the dental school is looking at, and you know, maybe the best kind of positive pressure is peer pressure and ‘just get vaccinated, you’ll be safer.’
“The indications of any side effects are incredibly minor for the level of protection you get,” he added. “It’s phenomenal. So all of those to me are really, really good reasons to get vaccinated. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, a communist or an autocrat, you ought to get vaccinated.”
Universities have mostly received Moderna and Pfizer doses, and every university has paused the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ever since regulators recommended a halt after reports of several people experiencing blood clots.
Henderson said that “based on what we currently know and the way our understanding is progressing, our environments will be safe. The circumstances are dynamic, though, and we have to be prepared to adapt. Any request for accommodation with a rational basis should be considered.”
Kathleen Peppo contributed reporting to this story.