PULLMAN (Murrow News 8) – A mid-week announcement, broadcasting WSU’s intentions in regards to COVID-19 vaccines, led with a fairly definitive statement.
“WSU Pullman will require proof of #COVID19 vaccine for the 2021-22 academic year,” read their post on Facebook the morning of April 28.
The bold type on “will require,” as well as listed consequences for failing to do so, painted a picture of a strong stance by WSU, which became the first public college or university in Washington to require vaccinations for the upcoming school year.
That requirement, though, does come with some major exceptions. Medical and religious exemptions have existed for vaccinations on campus for decades, but this time around, WSU is adding a “personal exemption,” and following that announcement, provided some clarity on exactly what that means.
“The personal exemption is really for those people who say, ‘This is my choice, you can’t tell me what to do,’” said Phil Weiler, WSU VP of Marketing and Communications. “Well, we’re not going to argue with you.”
That means the list of accepted exemptions is broad, up to and including, “I just don’t want it.” Weiler said what’s listed in the exemption is less essential than the act of submitting one.
“Doing nothing is not an option. People need to act.”
Hindering WSU’s ability to place a firmer mandate on vaccinations is the current “emergency use authorization” status of all COVID-19 vaccines.
For example, students are required to submit proof of two doses of the FDA-approved measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, or they won’t be eligible to register for classes. There is no “personal” exemption for MMR.
COVID-19 does not yet have FDA approval, putting the legality of a true “requirement” in question.
“Until it receives the official stamp of approval, it probably may be a little more difficult to mandate the vaccine,” said Weiler.
That status could change “very soon” as U.S. health officials work for FDA approval. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN Thursday they’re working “as expeditiously as possible” on approval applications for COVID-19 vaccines.
WSU policy will serve as a record of sorts of those who will be on campus in the fall. As mandates and vaccine status evolve over the summer, this will be valuable information.
WSU is, however, continuing a campaign to encourage all students, faculty, staff, and volunteers to get the vaccine, and while the requirement has broad exemptions, opting out of the vaccine will require a few more obstacles than the alternative.
As of now, there remains little that’s definitive about long terms plans – a number of things “could” and “may” accompany this announcement – including which punishments or further restrictions could be placed on those in the campus community who refuse to either get vaccinated or submit an exemption. Registration for spring 2022 classes could be one of the restrictions.
“If you do get an exemption, you could be required to have to undergo testing if we see an outbreak in the fall. It may be that you are subject to sort of enhanced public healthy protocols,” said Weiler. “Students who are fully vaccinated may not have to wear masks in certain situations, whereas those who are not vaccinated may be required to.”
WSU’s earlier-than-most school year – a semester schedule which begins in August – put them in a position to be a guinea pig of sorts for a requirement announcement, as schools across the country create their own policies for 2021-2022.
“I think some of the other schools were like, ‘If you want to make the decision and potentially take the heat, we’ll let you,’” said Weiler.
According to Wednesday’s release, WSU Pullman students living in university-owned housing will need to provide proof of vaccination, or have an approved exemption, by Friday, August 6, 2021. Exemption forms are not yet available.
WSU has promised more information during the summer, allowing for this policy to evolve along with the pandemic.