UM, MSU will require COVID-19 vaccinations amid fears of delta variant spread

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Michigan's two largest universities announced Friday they would require students, faculty and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19, marking a consequential step in their strategies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when students return for their fall terms.

Both University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. said the highly contagious delta variant, which is behind a resurgence in cases in the United States, motivated their decisions to mandate.

Mark Schlissel

"We acknowledge the magnitude of this decision and we do not make it lightly," Schlissel wrote in a letter to campus Friday afternoon. "Following our principles of putting the safety of our faculty, staff, students and patients first, we are confident this is the right approach."

They aren't the first to require vaccinations. Albion College was the first in Michigan to announce a campus-wide vaccine mandate, and hundreds of colleges and universities across the country have issued some kind of vaccine requirement, according to a list maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"I think we're going to be seeing more of this going forward," Stanley said.

MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. said Friday that the university would require all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall term.

The announcement came on the same day the state health department reported that Michigan COVID case totals have been rising for four weeks. This week the state added 4,012 cases from the virus, up from 2,323 cases the week before and 1,531 cases the week prior.

Stanley was an infectious disease doctor before going into university administration. He said he and other MSU officials hoped they wouldn't have to issue a vaccine mandate, but the "very disturbing" delta variant encouraged them to take stronger action.

"I think we'll find that many of our students and staff are already vaccinated, but for those who are not I hope this is the nudge it takes," he said.

Many Michigan colleges and universities haven't taken that step. Some, including Wayne State University and Oakland University, issued limited vaccine requirements that apply only to students living on campus. 

Western Michigan University and Central Michigan University are relying on incentive programs to boost their vaccination rates. They are offering prizes including gift cards and scholarships to students who get the shot.

Universities have a good case to make in requiring vaccinations, said Robert Sedler, a recently retired Wayne State University constitutional law professor.

The vaccines, while a "bodily invasion," are minor, widely available and free, so the mandate isn't overly burdensome for students and employees, he said.

Students also don't have to attend the universities — that is their choice, Sedler said. And the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers can require their employees be vaccinated as long as they make certain exemptions, such as for people with disabilities or medical issues.

"If this is challenged as unconstitutional, let's say violating the Fourth Amendment like it's unreasonable seizure, my prediction would be that the court would uphold it," Sedler said. "The (university) has a compelling interest in preventing the spread of the pandemic while it carries on its educational mission, and this is the least drastic means of doing it."

Libby Hemphill, an associate professor in the UM School of Information, said she is grateful the university will require vaccines.

What happens on campus affects the whole community, she said. Cases among students surged in the fall, which contributed to local school districts deciding to continue remote learning instead of bringing kids back into classrooms. 

That was particularly hard on Hemphill's son, who didn't do well in remote early elementary school, she said.

"The COVID infection rate was so high that we could never meet metrics to open the schools," Hemphill said. "It's not fair to kids that members of the university community, whether it's undergraduates or not, going about their daily lives and risking COVID infections meant that kids couldn't go to school."

More:Hundreds of UM instructors want mandatory vaccinations for in-person students

This isn't the first time UM has issued a vaccine mandate, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. Students living on campus last year were required to get a flu shot. 

The university strongly encourages students to be up to date on other vaccinations, he added, but does not mandate others. 

The COVID-19 "vaccine is different because we've never seen it before, and we're seeing it evolve by the month or by the week now, and we're facing a global pandemic," Fitzgerald said. "It's enormously different to have something like this hit so quickly and be so devastating."

Limited exemptions to rule

Both MSU and UM also announced they will resume mask orders in university buildings. At UM, students must complete weekly testing and wear a mask indoors until they are fully vaccinated. Everyone will have to mask inside MSU buildings starting Aug. 1.

The universities laid out their timelines for enforcing their COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

All UM faculty, staff and students, including those learning remotely, will have to submit proof they have at least started vaccination by Aug. 30. People who aren't two weeks out from their last shot will have to mask and take weekly COVID-19 tests until they are fully vaccinated.

The university will provide information by early August about seeking religious and medical exemptions. It also will provide students, faculty and staff with advisers who can answer questions about the vaccine.

A face mask on the Sparty statue inside the Michigan State University Student Union is seen on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. MSU and the University of Michigan are resuming mask mandates inside university buildings.

Those who don't get vaccinated and don't get an exemption by Aug. 30 will face "appropriate campus disciplinary measures," Schlissel wrote. He did not outline those measures but said the university will share further details. 

MSU students, faculty and staff must be vaccinated by Aug. 31. Those who aren't fully vaccinated by then and those who are granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons must participate in the university's testing program, where scientists use saliva samples to measure how much the coronavirus is spreading on campus.

The university also will provide limited exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Stanley acknowledged some students might be opposed to vaccines and said he hopes they don't choose to leave school.

"I respect people's ability to make a choice," he said. "This, to me, has nothing to do with politics, has nothing to do with ethics. It has everything to do with public health and how we keep each other safe."