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Editorial: The feasibility of UNC mandating COVID-19 vaccines

Signs reminding Tar Heels' to get vaccinated were photographed on the Pit on Aug. 22, 2021. Unlike other major universities, UNC has not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine.

For the fall 2021 semester, Indiana University announced a vaccine mandate for all students, faculty and staff, becoming one of the first major public universities to do so. Predictably, the mandate was met with mixed reactions. Legal opposition rose to the U.S. Supreme Court,  where justice Amy Coney Barrett turned down a group of students' request to block the vaccine mandate.  

In light of Justice Barrett’s decision in the Indiana University case, several members of UNC’s Campus and Community Advisory Committee have called on the university to require COVID-19 vaccines for all students and employees. This plea has come at a time where North Carolina is experiencing its highest daily case average since February due to the delta variant and UNC has seen two COVID-19 clusters.

The lack of a vaccine mandate has stirred frustration and confusion from students and faculty. The Editorial Board hopes to answer some frequently asked questions. 

Can the University even mandate the vaccine?

The short, confusing answer is the University has no idea. The University has cited a lack of clear legal guidance when making this decision. UNC System President Peter Hans, who penned the final decision, said “the University must comply with state law and cannot substitute its own judgment for that of the (Commission for Public Health). Nor is it clear that the University even has the legal authority to take the unprecedented step of mandating additional immunizations for all students.” 

Ok, but what about the Supreme Court case. Doesn’t that give the University the green light since it was a federal decision?

Not really. Coney Barrett denied the Indiana University students’ request to block the vaccine mandate on her own, without referring to the other justices and without asking the university to respond. These actions indicate the request was not made on firm legal footing.

Part of the reason for the uncertain legal solidity is the Emergency Use Authorization that the three vaccines are operating under which adds additional legal complexity to any mandate. 

When should we expect full FDA approval?

On Monday, the FDA announced it was giving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine full approval. The FDA approval is expected to facilitate a wave of vaccine requirements by organizations awaiting official approval before putting mandates into effect. 

Health officials believe an FDA approved vaccine will drive up vaccine rates from Americans who have been hesitant of receiving a vaccine that was only administered with emergency use authorization. 

Would the University consider a vaccine mandate in the future?

Not necessarily. Hans acknowledges that throughout the pandemic, the System has followed the advice of state and federal health officials. Currently, no state nor federal health official has recommended a vaccine mandate, thus the University will follow suit and not require a mandate. 

How do faculty feel about a potential vaccine mandate?

Faculty is overwhelmingly in favor of a vaccine mandate. Because neither faculty nor the University currently has the power to implement a mandate, faculty members have asked that the UNC System give Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin the power to require proof of vaccination from employees and students at UNC.

Why is this decision bigger than Chapel Hill?

It is not only about us in Chapel Hill, it is about the entire UNC System and its 17 schools. The UNC System has to mandate the vaccine unilaterally — this decision encompasses every university in the state. 


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