Colleges Unlikely to Require COVID Vaccine Booster Shots: Survey

The new omicron variant of the virus may alter the way schools view COVID vaccine requirements and boosters, however.
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  • The American College Health Association's COVID-19 Task Force surveyed more than 800 members.
  • Most indicated they would not require COVID vaccine boosters at this time.
  • College health officials are still trying to convince students to get first series of shots.

U.S. colleges and universities appear unlikely to mandate COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, according to a new survey conducted by the American College Health Association's COVID-19 Task Force.

In an interview with BestColleges, Anita Barkin, co-chair of the task force, said that a soon-to-be published survey of the organization's 800-plus members showed most were not planning on requiring booster shots in the spring semester.

"I think, at this point and time, boosters should be recommended. I don't believe schools will move toward requirements," Barkin said, based on the results of the survey taken in November.

But Barkin also said schools could change their policies if there was a significant change in current conditions, such as a major coronavirus outbreak followed by "a preponderance of scientific data that indicates that boosters are critical to maintaining" immune status.

"The biggest caveat would be if the definition of fully vaccinated changes to include boosters. Then I think the requirements of institutions that are currently requiring vaccinations will revisit those requirements to accommodate the new definition," Barkin said.

Even if that were to happen, Barkin said some colleges and universities would then have to deal with state laws and policies that block mandatory vaccines. She said those laws and policies have been "a major challenge" as her organization seeks to get students vaccinated.

Requiring booster shots at schools where vaccines are already required wouldn't be an issue, Govind Persad, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Greenwall Foundation Faculty Scholar in bioethics, told BestColleges.

"While I think universities that require COVID-19 vaccinations are legally permitted to require boosters for students, any university considering requiring boosters should consider what it is hoping to accomplish," Persad said.

"If boosters were to be required, ethically they should be required for faculty and staff before, or at least at the same time as, they are required for students, as faculty and staff are generally going to be at higher risk," he added.

More than 1,000 colleges and universities have COVID-19 vaccine requirements in place. No schools currently require booster shots. However, schools have become more vocal about them since Nov. 29 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its guidance to say that all adults 18 and older "should" get booster shots. The CDC revised its guidance in response to concerns over the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Following the release of the CDC's updated guidance, Drexel University announced that it will hold free booster shot clinics this week.

"There may be uncertainty about omicron, but it's more important than ever to continue with what we do know — a layered strategy works. Vaccination including booster doses, indoor masking, attention to ventilation, testing and an effective contact tracing program aimed at containing infection allow us to move forward," Dr. Marla J. Gold, Drexel's chief wellness officer, and Dr. Janet Cruz, director of Student Health Services, said in a joint announcement.

At Westmont College, plans are being made to hold a booster clinic at the end of this semester. It would be the second booster clinic for the college, which held its first one in October.

"Currently, Westmont is not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations or boosters for any community members, but we are doing all we can to promote vaccines and boosters," Jason Tavarez, Westmont's director of institutional resilience, told BestColleges.

While not requiring booster shots, many schools do make them available to students. Duke University, Yale University, Temple University, Princeton University, and Syracuse University are among those schools. And many other schools, like Harvard University, are strongly encouraging their students to get booster shots.

But even as efforts are mounted to push booster shots, a key focus for college health officials is to get students to overcome their skepticism and get the first series of vaccines against COVID-19.

Vaccine hesitancy continues even as new outbreaks have occurred at St. Michael's College, Quinnipiac University, the University of California, Berkeley, Georgetown University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Arizona.

"Right now, we have a significant challenge in front of us in terms of getting students the initial series," Barkin said. "So, we're very focused on getting institutions of higher education to encourage their students to get vaccinated.

"We know that's the best course of action in terms of bringing an end to this pandemic and getting us back to a sense of a safe and secure campus environment," she added.

Vaccine hesitancy is widespread among young adults, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. About 1 in 4 unvaccinated people ages 18 to 25 told researchers that they "probably will not" or "definitely will not" get the COVID-19 vaccination.

Barkin says the struggle to get students to act is due to several factors, including the current political climate, vaccine misinformation, and a lack of pressing concern among youths.

"I think that, to some extent, that young people have been less significantly affected by serious illness from the virus," she said. "So it's really important to communicate to those students that you're not only getting the vaccine to prevent a COVID event in your own life. It also is to protect those who are at high risk, like older staff and faculty and vulnerable family members and students who are immune-compromised.

"It's building a sense of community about why it's important. It's not about me, it's about us," she added.

Another cause of both vaccine and booster shot hesitancy is poor communication, says Katie Foss, a health communication scholar and professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

"While college students may not perceive themselves to be at risk, the traditional college environment puts them into contact with many people. College students may be less likely to get severely ill, but COVID still disrupts their lives," Foss told BestColleges.

"We haven't had enough widespread health messages targeting college students. More campaigns are needed to demonstrate why college students need boosters," she said.