Michigan State trustee criticizes vaccine mandate, says university 'follows the herd'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Michigan State University trustee criticized the university's vaccine mandate shortly after the board voted unanimously to support President Samuel Stanley's authority to issue the mandate. 

Trustee Patrick O'Keefe, who was elected to the board in November, argued COVID-19 vaccination should be a decision made after weighing the cost and benefits of the vaccine.

He argued that coverage from the vaccine was not complete, complications were not well-documented and, though students were promised a return to normalcy, masks are again required and professors are starting to ask to teach virtually. 

"It does not follow the science; it follows the herd," O'Keefe said of the mandate. "People who demand we follow the science appear remarkably disinterested in the nuances and uncertainties of the research they believe supports this ideology."

Pat O'Keefe

Michigan State announced in late July that students, faculty and staff would need to be vaccinated against the virus, with some religious and medical exemptions, and wear masks indoors. Stanley, an epidemiologist, said university data shows 95% of students and 98% of staff are vaccinated. 

The university had 67 detected cases of the virus last week and a positivity rate of 3.02%, according to university data.

O'Keefe's comments came after the board voted unanimously to affirm that under university bylaws the "president had, has and shall continue to have the authority to issue the directives orders and policies related to COVID-19, including the vaccine directive." 

“The president firmly believes the evidence is very strong for the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines," MSU spokesman Dan Olsen said after the meeting. "These vaccines are FDA approved or authorized, which documents how safe they are, and they are one of the most powerful and one of the few tools we have to prevent disease, severe illness and death." 

O'Keefe said he was not being critical of MSU, but instead of higher education, which "used to put critical thinking as its core competency."

"Nobody has a policy for the requirement for boosters," O'Keefe said of universities. "Nobody has a policy for people like myself who have had COVID who arguably have stronger immunities and are in better positions to stay healthy than a vaccinated person."

O'Keefe criticized higher education for failing to acknowledge the vaccine "has side effects for young men and women of child-bearing age." The university announced in late August that researchers will undertake two studies exploring whether or how the virus or vaccination have affected "the menstrual cycles of women and girls."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the vaccine is "safe and effective" at preventing severe illness and death and reducing the risk of spreading the virus. The CDC also has noted it's still learning how long vaccine protection lasts and how it fairs against new variants 

"Infections happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated, even with the delta variant," the CDC said. "When these infections occur among vaccinated people, they tend to be mild."

O'Keefe also argued the vaccine would affect students, particularly minority students who he argued are less likely to receive the vaccine. 

"As to freedom of choice on whether a mandate for a COVID drug is appropriate, I would only offer that it appears 'my body, my choice' applies only to killing babies on college campuses," O'Keefe said. 

Trustee Rema Vassar, citing the university's vaccination data, questioned O'Keefe's statements about minority students avoiding vaccination.

"Folks who are coming in as Spartans, regardless of their backgrounds, are generally accepting of this," Vassar said. 

A federal judge last week denied an MSU employee's request to temporarily halt the vaccine mandate on the employee's argument that she had naturally acquired immunity. The case is scheduled for a hearing on a preliminary injunction 

The same judge, however, granted a request to halt a similar vaccine mandate for athletes at Western Michigan University who were denied religious exemptions.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com