Despite pressure from campuses, UNC System leaders aren’t pushing for a vaccine mandate

UNC System officials and leaders of the individual system campuses have faced consistent pressure from some faculty and students to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. But top leaders have not pushed for that, saying they don’t have the authority.

On Thursday, UNC System President Peter Hans defended the system’s position that it cannot legally require a COVID-19 vaccine at this time. He would not say whether he would want to mandate vaccines for students and employees if he could.

“I think it’s best left in the hands of public health experts,” Hans said in a press conference.

He then quoted a state law and said lawmakers clearly delegated the ability to add immunizations for children to public health experts through the North Carolina Commission for Public Health.

And “that’s where those decisions best lie,” he said.

President Joe Biden announced new COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements for large private businesses and federal contractors last week. However, it’s unclear how that will affect colleges and universities, and more guidance is expected. The vaccine mandate could have more impact on large research universities where faculty and staff work with the federal government.

The Department of Labor is working on the details of the order, so it is not in effect yet.

Hans said UNC System officials are “awaiting clarity” on how and if North Carolina universities might be affected, as is everyone else in higher education.

Most NC private universities requiring vaccines

The UNC System’s 16 universities do not currently require vaccines for students or employees. System leadership has cited a “lack of clear legal authority” in the matter and advised the campuses that only the North Carolina Commission for Public Health may mandate immunizations for college students.

However, many private universities in North Carolina — including Duke University, Shaw University, Wake Forest University and Elon University — require students to be vaccinated. Meredith College in Raleigh announced Thursday it will require vaccines for the Spring 2022 semester now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval.

UNC System faculty members have also argued that state law doesn’t prevent universities from requiring students to get this vaccine.

When asked if the university system is pushing for a vaccine mandate with the state legislature or the state commission, Hans said the system is having regular conversations with the state health department, which oversees the commission.

Earlier this week, N.C. State University faculty members passed a resolution calling for a vaccine mandate for all students and employees on campus, citing the Pfizer vaccine receiving full FDA approval.

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty also have taken action to get a vaccine mandate, and student leaders have asked for one as COVID-19 continues to spread on campus. UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has also expressed support for a vaccine mandate.

Six former North Carolina health directors also asked the UNC System to mandate a vaccine for students and employees before the start of the fall semester.

‘Get vaccinated or get tested regularly’

Hans said they are following current public health guidance and flexibility for campuses given their particular situations, including local health conditions, capacities and cultures. But he has not given chancellors the go-ahead to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

“I can’t delegate legal authority I don’t possess,” Hans said Thursday.

He did say he’s proud of the 100,000 vaccinations on the UNC System campuses.

In August, Hans instructed chancellors to put in a “get vaccinated or get tested regularly” policy for students, faculty and staff. He said they should also ask students to provide proof of vaccination.

“Vaccination is our best weapon against the virus,” Hans said in the memo. “Vaccines are safe, free, and highly effective against all known variants.”

Hans said universities will continue to offer free vaccines to students, faculty and staff on campuses and “encourage and incentivize every eligible person to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

UNC System campuses are tracking vaccination rates and validating vaccinations differently. At each campus, unvaccinated students and employees are required to participate in COVID-19 testing at least once a week.

At UNC-CH, students must attest to being vaccinated, but they are not required to provide proof of vaccination. Faculty and staff must fill out a form to verify their vaccination status and upload appropriate documentation.

The university is conducting random weekly audits of student attestations, and about 95% of those cases are matching up, according to the chancellor. Any student found uploading a fraudulent vaccination card will be suspended, but that has not happened, according to the university.

At N.C. State, faculty, staff and students are proving vaccination by uploading vaccination cards, not merely saying or attesting that they are vaccinated. NCSU has also not reported any findings of fake vaccine cards.

COVID-19 dashboards at UNC-CH, at N.C. State and other campuses show the latest numbers on cases, clusters and vaccinations.

This story was originally published September 16, 2021 1:17 PM.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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