Local colleges taking wait-and-see approach on mandating booster vaccines

LOCAL COLLEGES are currently strongly recommending students and employees to get COVID-19 booster shots, and currently vetting as to whether or not to mandate them on campus. / AP FILE PHOTO/MARY ALTAFFER
LOCAL COLLEGES are strongly recommending students and employees to get COVID-19 booster shots, while considering whether to mandate them on campus. / AP FILE PHOTO/MARY ALTAFFER

PROVIDENCE – In late summer, just before students returned to local college campuses for the new academic year, the schools made it clear that a return to a relatively normal campus experience required nearly all students – and employees in some cases – to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

So far, however, no local colleges have publicly announced plans to mandate booster shots when students return to campus in January for the start of the next semester. Nine schools reached by Providence Business News this week all said they are strongly encouraging students, faculty and staff to get booster shots, though some are considering mandates.

The University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, the Community College of Rhode Island, Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island School of Design, New England Institute of Technology, Bryant University, Providence College and Brown University all said that they are following current guidelines and recommendations set by both the R.I. Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Both the CDC and RIDOH recently announced that individuals who are 18 years and older and fully vaccinated – received both vaccine doses – are eligible for booster shots, stating that there has been increased cases of COVID-19 reported in recent weeks. The CDC also states that vaccine effectiveness can wane over time, with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines losing steam after six months and two months after the single Johnson & Johnson dose.

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Local and federal government officials are also encouraging people to get booster shots with the omicron variant having been identified.

Brown, which was among the first colleges to require both students and employees to get vaccinated, states on its website that the university, in accordance with the CDC’s current guidance, “highly recommends” those who are eligible to get a booster shot “as soon as possible.” While booster shots are not mandated at Brown at this time, that decision “could be made in the future,” the university said, noting that vaccination cards for students and employees should be kept up to date.

New England Tech Executive Vice President Scott Freund said in an email Dec. 1 that most students are not yet eligible for booster shots until late in the college’s winter term because students returned to campus fully vaccinated on Oct. 4.

Ellen Reynolds, URI assistant vice president for health and wellness and director of health services, said on Friday that a large portion of students were not prioritized for vaccines until late April, a period in which final exams were being held. Some students chose to not get vaccinated until they completed their finals last spring due to concerns over mild reactions from the vaccines, Reynolds said.

She said URI’s health guidelines for the spring semester are still in the works, with communication to the campus community expected before the end of the fall semester, and the decision to mandate booster shots is “actively under discussion.”

Daniel P. Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island, recently told PBN that he agrees with the colleges’ approach of encouraging boosters, given the minimal disruptions colleges have experienced on campus thus far this semester and colleges’ ability to quickly shift to mandates if needed.

“The institutions’ encouragement and campus-based vaccination clinics indicate there’s a desire and support for [students to get vaccinated]. Given the way that the virus’ impact on the colleges has changed, I think it’s appropriate to let itself play out for a bit,” Egan said. “The virus will determine if there will be a requirement going forward.”

Some institutions, such as URI, CCRI and PC, have either active booster shot vaccination clinics on campus or are finalizing plans to have such clinics. URI has four clinics scheduled between Dec. 7 and Dec. 15, while PC will have a voluntary clinic on campus Dec. 7. New England Tech is considering holding booster clinics.

Reynolds said booster interest at URI is high. She said that on Nov. 29, 450 booster appointments on campus were made available and all were booked with waiting lists. There will be “several hundred” appointments available on URI’s campus over the next couple of weeks.

“We suspect those [appointments] will fill, as well,” Reynolds said.

Bryant, RISD and Brown are currently not offering booster clinics, but recommending individuals seeking boosters to make appointments either with pharmacies or through the state.

Colleges are weighing multiple factors, including the community health climate surrounding the virus and the new omicron variant, whether they will mandate boosters on campus. PC spokesperson Steve Maurano said Thursday the college is looking to see if the definition of “being fully vaccinated” may change globally.

“Does that change to include a booster? Because up to this point, it’s the two shots. If it changes to include the booster, then that’s something we’ll look at as well,” Maurano said.

Roger Williams University, Salve Regina University, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Stonehill College and Wheaton College did not immediately respond to requests for information on booster vaccine plans.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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