After UNC-Chapel Hill made national headlines last fall for coronavirus outbreaks on campus, some fear the university might be headed in that direction once again. Despite increasingly worrisome trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, especially among the unvaccinated, the UNC System will not require the vaccine for students, faculty and staff at its 16 university campuses.
The decision was first conveyed in a memo from UNC System President Peter Hans in April, in which Hans wrote there was an “absence of clear legal authority” for a mandate.
The system has stood by that decision — but a lot has changed since then. Back in April, cases and hospitalizations were trending downward, and a seamless return to normal campus operations in the fall, with or without a vaccine mandate, looked promising.
That may not be the case anymore, however. Under threat of the highly infectious delta variant, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are climbing across the country, including here in North Carolina. Average new daily cases have increased more than sixfold in the past month, and the positivity rate has topped 10% for the first time since Feb. 1.
And as the need for a vaccine mandate grows stronger, the UNC System’s legal argument for not doing so is getting weaker. Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld Indiana University’s vaccine requirement for students and staff members. And in recent weeks, the California State University System joined the University of California in announcing they will require faculty, staff and students to be vaccinated this fall, with few exceptions. Both systems had previously said their vaccine requirements would be contingent on full FDA approval.
“We are moving back into another crisis phase, and I think everyone would like to see a vaccine mandate not only for students, but for faculty and staff as well,” Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in a phone interview.
Chapman pointed out that while the path ahead may be concerning, the UNC System has the opportunity to avoid another disaster.
“The huge difference is that this situation is preventable,” she said. “And it’s preventable right now if we were allowed to put a vaccine mandate in place.”
Even if the legality of implementing a vaccine mandate for students were indeed questionable, the law is clear for employers: the UNC System does, in fact, have the authority to require the vaccine for the more than 48,000 faculty and staff it employs. Yet it hasn’t. Why?
When reached for comment, the UNC System did not directly say whether it would reconsider a vaccine mandate for students or employees, but pointed to Hans’s April memo as well as another memo, from May, that outlined COVID-19 vaccine incentive strategies. Meanwhile, UNC-Chapel Hill will require masks indoors for everyone and regular asymptomatic evaluation testing for unvaccinated students, UNC Media Relations said in an email.
At least some students and faculty are wondering if this is a political decision. After all, North Carolina Republicans do have a tight grip on the UNC System, and they’ve been lukewarm at best on vaccines and forceful in their opposition to mask or vaccine mandates at any level.
It is, of course, possible that the semester will still go smoothly. Perhaps enough students, faculty and staff have already chosen to be vaccinated, as the UNC System has “strongly encouraged” them to do. But that’s a risk the UNC System shouldn’t be willing to take — not when the cost of getting it wrong is so high. And if the events of last fall taught us anything, it’s that simply asking swaths of college students to voluntarily do the right thing isn’t guaranteed success.
Students are scheduled to return to campus in just a matter of weeks. It’s not too late for the UNC System to do the right thing, but time is running out.