As universities across the country prepare to transition back to in-person learning, debate has mounted over whether vaccination should be required for those returning to campus.
Some universities have already indicated this will be the case. Most, however, have stopped short, instead opting for a “soft mandate,” which translates to something like strong encouragement. As of now, no large, public, high-profile institution has decisively implemented a hard mandate.
The University of California should be the first.
To be sure, any vaccine requirement will have to be enforced sensitively and purposefully.
Only in the United States are vaccines — and particularly the COVID-19 vaccine — so politicized that, for some, vaccination today is akin to voting for President Joe Biden. To mandate the vaccine would be to make a strong political statement.
Beyond general skepticism, a history of racist medical studies and a widespread lack of public health infrastructure in Black communities has made many Black Americans rightfully suspicious of state-sponsored vaccination. In mandating the vaccine, the UC system would have to uplift Black health leaders and direct public health messaging in ways that are cognizant of these intergenerational wounds.
Concerns over equity also arise among international students, who may face barriers to vaccination in their home countries. A UC system vaccine mandate would have to ensure these students receive adequate accommodations upon returning to campus.
Despite these hurdles, the sheer reach of the UC system in California makes the university a powerful force for vaccination. The UC system employs more than 230,000 faculty and staff and is home to nearly 300,000 students statewide. A vaccine mandate by the university would ensure that half a million people in California are inoculated — a significant leap toward herd immunity.
As campuses return to in-person learning, students will be streaming in from across the country and the world. Filling classrooms and dormitories with unvaccinated staff and students raises serious health concerns for UC campuses as well as their surrounding cities.
Because the COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed through emergency use authorization — and thus haven’t yet undergone the same long-term testing as other vaccines — there are questions over the legality of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Los Angeles Unified School District, which recently made teacher employment contingent on vaccination, is now tied up in a legal fight.
Instead, the UC system should only require those returning to campus to get vaccinated, as they did for the flu shot last fall, with accommodations to be made on a case-by-case basis. For those who wish to wait, remote learning, teaching and working options should continue.
The actions the UC system takes extend far beyond its campus or state lines. By implementing a vaccine mandate, the university will set an important precedent as universities nationwide eye a long-anticipated return to campus this fall.