As the surge of delta variant cases threatens the return to normalcy students hope for this fall semester, universities across the nation are scrambling to figure out their evolving response to the pandemic.
The Supreme Court recently upheld Indiana University’s vaccine mandate with Justice Amy Coney Barrett dismissing student lawsuits that claimed the requirement violated their constitutional rights to “bodily integrity, autonomy, and medical choice.” The students acknowledged the university’s medical and religious exemptions “virtually guaranteed” anyone an exemption if they sought one.
The University of Illinois System is another institution mandating its students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated before arriving on campus. It also requires everyone to wear masks in indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status.
“We give our students, faculty and staff a choice: If they want to be on campus, we are requiring vaccinations,” says UI system president Timothy Killeen. “If for whatever medical or religious reason a student, for example, can't get vaccinated, we have the backup of frequent, fast, very accurate testing.”
Last year, the system’s Urbana-Champaign campus developed its own rapid saliva-based COVID-19 test and was granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shortly after. Killeen says all three of the system’s universities will require all unvaccinated students, faculty and staff to comply with weekly testing to help mitigate any potential spread of the delta variant.
“Last year, our experience was such that we had no transmission in the classroom, no infection of our surrounding communities, no student who was severely ill,” Killeen says. “So we know [testing] works. But this delta variant is a trickster, as it moves very quickly.”
But only testing unvaccinated individuals may not be enough. Stanford University recently announced it will require its students to take weekly COVID-19 tests regardless of vaccination status. There are rising concerns about students submitting fake cards as proof of vaccination and although rare, breakthrough cases are a reality as well. To keep an eye on all this, Killeen says the university system has a reliable team behind it for support.
“We've got a big medical school, we've got virologists, epidemiologists, public health experts, digital experts for the contact tracing and … we rely a lot on our own expertise base,” Killeen says. “We are requiring a verified vaccination status and we double-check with the state and make sure that it's real. And so far, we've had no incidents of any falsified vaccination cards, which I'm so proud to report.”
While surrounding communities have concerns about a potential COVID-19 case spike due to the system’s more than 90,000 students flooding back to campus from all over the country, Killeen emphasizes the essential and helpful tool regular testing has proved to be last year.
Instead, Killeen says his main concern is not knowing how quickly the delta variant can transmit from person to person.
“How fast [the delta variant] goes is the key thing we really need to understand because: ‘Is testing twice every other day sufficient?’ ‘Do we need to go to once every day?’” Killeen says. “We're going to have to keep our own beady eye on how this delta is propagating through our communities.”
Overall, Killeen says the university’s system-wide mandates have received little pushback.
But despite all the system precautions and established team efforts, Killeen says there’s no time to sit still.
“We have to be on our toes,” Killeen says, “and we cannot be complacent.”
This segment aired on August 16, 2021.