Opinion: Three Yale students on why CT colleges should require COVID-19 vaccines

The entrance to Yale University's Old Campus across from the New Haven Green.

The entrance to Yale University's Old Campus across from the New Haven Green.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Thousands of students at Connecticut’s colleges and universities were forced to learn remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the arrival of vaccines, many local colleges hope to return to in-person learning. If returning students elect not to get vaccinated, however, schools risk a return of serious outbreaks among students, staff, and community members. To prevent these outbreaks, some local universities — including Yale University and Wesleyan University — have joined a growing number of colleges nationwide in announcing mandatory vaccination. Despite the enormous potential of such requirements to ensure campus safety, many other local institutions have said they will not require vaccination. All Connecticut colleges and universities should require COVID-19 vaccination for in-person learners; such requirements are safe, effective, and legal. As Connecticut university students ourselves, we yearn for a return to in-person learning. However, we feel strongly that mandatory vaccination is needed to return safely, and that universities have a moral obligation to protect their local communities.

The three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the United States are safe. More than 210 million shots have been administered, under what the CDC describes as “the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.” While mRNA vaccines are new to the public, scientists have been researching and testing mRNA vaccine technology for decades. The COVID-19 vaccines have met the rigorous safety, quality, and efficacy standards to be granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). These vaccines also continue to be scrutinized routinely; in fact, the recent J&J “pause” is an example of our monitoring system working well. After six reports of rare blood clots out of 6.8 million doses (less than the risk of being struck by lightning), the FDA paused administration to review the data.

These vaccines are also highly effective. With efficacy rates of 95 percent (Pfizer), 94 percent (Moderna), and 67 percent (J&J), these vaccines are among the most effective vaccines ever to be produced. For reference, a COVID-19 vaccine need only have been 50 percent effective to have been considered for authorization. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are roughly as effective as the MMR and chickenpox vaccines, and much more effective than the seasonal flu vaccine (which is 40-60 percent effective).

Moreover, colleges and universities can legally require vaccination. The laws applicable to public versus private institutions vary, with public schools facing additional requirements under the United States Constitution and certain statutes. School-based vaccine requirements, which have a robust history in American public health, were first upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1922, and challenges to these requirements have been continually rebuffed by the lower courts.

Often, schools will couple vaccination requirements with exemptions for medical or, less commonly, religious reasons. All universities, public and private, must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which in this context likely requires schools to grant medical exemptions to students with contraindications to COVID-19 vaccines. Extensive litigation has made clear that vaccine requirements are constitutional even without a religious exemption. However, there is some doubt as to whether a public-school vaccine requirement lacking a religious exemption would survive the current Supreme Court’s unprecedented view of the free exercise of religion. All colleges and universities, particularly public ones, might therefore avoid additional, expensive litigation by including medical and religious exemptions.

Finally, although there is room for debate about whether the legality of vaccine requirements is impacted by the fact that the COVID-19 vaccines received only an EUA — rather than full FDA approval — this most likely does not alter the legal analysis. While the federal government has not addressed the implications of the EUA in the educational context, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance stating that employers can legally require vaccination notwithstanding the EUA.

Because these vaccines are safe and highly effective, and because requiring them is legal, all Connecticut colleges and universities should require vaccination for students returning to in-person learning. Such requirements will prevent costly — and often deadly — outbreaks. Our local educational institutions have an obligation to provide safe learning environments for students and to protect the wider communities that host them. COVID-19 vaccine requirements may be the easiest and most effective way for them to do so.

Catherine Camp is a second-year JD/MBA student at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management. She holds MPH and BS degrees from Yale University. Catherine Feuille is a second-year JD student at Yale Law School. She holds an MPH from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Blake N. Shultz is an MD/JD candidate at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School, and a fellow at the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy.