Most Boston-area colleges and universities have required students to be fully vaccinated against COVID – and receive at least one booster – to participate in on-campus activities for the 2022-23 academic year. But fewer institutions have been as stringent with the updated bivalent booster, which became available in early September.
Massachusetts health data shows just 7% of vaccinated adults ages 16 to 29 have received the second booster shot. Among fully vaccinated 16- to 19-year-olds in the state, 53% received the first booster shot, as did 47% of 20- to 29-year-olds.
Health experts say the bivalent booster protects against both the original coronavirus strain and also the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron variants, the most common circulating. Anyone 5 and up is eligible for the bivalent vaccine if it’s been at least two months since a primary series or first booster and at least three months since a COVID-19 infection.
Other area schools are encouraging students to get the updated booster, including Boston University, which held a one-day clinic for the bivalent dose a week before the Thanksgiving break, a popular time for travel and gatherings.
“As a University, we wanted to offer bivalent boosters ahead of the colder months and holiday season with the expected increase in indoor gatherings,” said Colin Riley, a BU spokesperson, in an email to WBUR. (Disclosure: Boston University holds WBUR's broadcast license.)
He said turnout for the one-day clinic was around 600 from the campus community.
Some students who visited the clinic said they wanted to stay up to date with their vaccines.
BU student Ksenia Sherstyuk said she will be visiting a friend’s family’s house for Thanksgiving. She still wears a mask whenever she’s indoors in large groups.
“I haven’t gotten sick before and I don’t want to get sick now,” said the 18-year-old.
Bentley University hosted four community clinics for the bivalent booster this fall, according to a spokesperson. Northeastern University has offered eight clinics at its Boston campus for the bivalent booster since it became available.
Some campuses in the U-Mass system, including Amherst and Boston, only require the primary COVID vaccine series for students but "strongly recommends" booster shots.
Ed Gavaghan, a spokesperson for Northeastern, said via email the school has no plans to require the second booster and that it “has consistently followed scientific data and public health requirements to maintain safe and open campuses throughout the pandemic.”
Though COVID positivity and hospitalization rates have leveled off in the last month, Massachusetts health experts say the winter holidays tend to drive an uptick in cases because more people are gathering indoors without masks.
“If COVID does what we think it’s going to do and what it’s done in the past, there very well may be an increase and potential surging into the winter,” said Dr. Estevan Garcia, medical director at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
He acknowledged that colleges and universities may rely on different data points to inform their vaccination policies.
“Right now, we’re not seeing as much of the virus but it can peak at any point, so we certainly recommend the COVID vaccine right now to really prepare for those holidays,” he said.