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A national call for college COVID safe zones: How higher education leaders can accelerate America’s vaccination push — and keep their campuses open

Mark McClellan, Andy Slavitt and John Bridgeland | August 26, 2021

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As students return to colleges and universities this fall, the highly communicable Delta variant of COVID-19 creates unexpected challenges to keep campuses safe and open. Higher education leaders now need to respond rapidly to protect their students, staff, faculty, and people with whom they come in contact.

Everyone recognizes the benefits of in-person learning, but to get there requires some tough and important decisions. Former officials from the last five Administrations and health experts have joined together across political parties and sectors to lay out the best response by creating #COVIDSafeZones.

Colleges and universities are well positioned to help communities and the country beat this pandemic. Higher education institutions employ over 3 million Americans and are attended by more than 19 million students. Youth ages 18-24 have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. College campuses, by their nature, are “congregate settings” at high risk for infectious disease transmission, and especially those not protected by vaccines are becoming infected faster, from more limited contact.

The Delta variant represents a more dangerous threat to campus health and safety, operational continuity, and ability to meet the safety expectations of faculty, staff, students, and their parents. Campuses must re-visit 2020 strategies; last year’s plan may not prevent outbreaks from this year’s variant. 

We are asking college leaders to require vaccination. A vaccination requirement is the best way to protect students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community. It is encouraging that nearly 700 higher education institutions already require vaccination this fall, most with some medical and religious exceptions. For campuses with medical centers and clinics, vaccination is particularly important for those who come in contact with patients. High vaccination rates provide a greater assurance of safety in other high-risk settings, where distancing or reduced contact is difficult to achieve, including residence halls, classrooms, and public indoor events.

For those colleges and universities that are unable or choose not to require vaccination, we are asking leaders to take every step possible to get as close to 100 percent of their students, faculty, and staff vaccinated early in the academic year. Colleges and universities can make vaccination easy with pop-up vaccine clinics to meet students as they return to campus, including at move-in, orientation, football games, tailgates, and other student life events. Colleges can offer paid leave for staff and faculty to get vaccinated and in the event of side effects. One of the most powerful ways to increase vaccine uptake is to engage student leaders in peer-to-peer vaccination education efforts.

Layered mitigation strategies are needed to keep students, faculty, and staff safe as they return to campus. We recommend these concrete steps:

— Screening for Infectiousness. Particularly for unvaccinated individuals, colleges and universities should require a protocol for routine COVID-19 testing, typically twice weekly. With high COVID-19 rates in their communities, many colleges are also starting to screen the vaccinated, since they too can spread the virus. More frequent testing should be done in higher-risk settings where appropriate and practical.

—Tracking Vaccine Status. As many higher education leaders have shared with us, tracking the vaccination status of their campus population, including an attestation component, is critically important and helps colleges and universities assess community immunity and adjust the campus response accordingly.

—Encouraging Mask Use. Mask use should follow the latest CDC recommendations, which currently advise face coverings in public indoor settings in substantial or high prevalence zones, including for vaccinated individuals.

Planning to Pivot. Building on the best practices emerging around the country, higher education leaders are adapting for rapidly-evolving fall 2021 situations. As in the 2020-21 school year, leaders should ensure they have the right people at the table and make data-driven decisions. For additional guidance, The American College Health Association (ACHA) provides considerations for re-opening in Fall 2021.

These COVIDSafeZones strategies are not a broad vaccination mandate and are consistent with established public health precedent and can be highly beneficial, including in states that prohibit vaccination requirements in their public colleges and universities. State laws that challenge any of these steps should be examined carefully, both for legality and consistency with campus safety. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision appears to give broad support for vaccination requirements.

We recognize that any protocols create burdens and costs for colleges and universities and their students, faculty and staff. Still, higher education leaders also realize the much higher costs of ongoing disruption and uncertainty in campus operations, student learning, and people’s lives.

With bold leadership from our nation’s higher education presidents to confront the Delta challenge, campuses can remain open, students can continue to learn, and we can edge closer to beating this pandemic.

Dr. Mark McClellan, a professor and founding director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, headed the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for President George W. Bush, and is an independent board member for Cigna and Johnson & Johnson. 

Andy Slavitt, the author of “Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response,” was President Joe Biden’s White House senior adviser for COVID response until June and ran the Affordable Care Act and CMS from 2015 to 2017 for President Barack Obama. 

John Bridgeland (@JohnMBridgeland), co-founder and CEO of the COVID Collaborative, was director of the Bush White House Domestic Policy Council.

Public health experts, scientists and former elected officials of both parties have signed an open letter urging America’s higher education leaders to implement #COVIDSafeZones.

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