Although things seem quiet on the COVID-19 front in Chapel Hill with low infection rates among students, faculty and staff, the pandemic is far from over. Scientists in South Africa identified a new COVID-19 variant, omicron, that could potentially affect the U.S. and other regions within the next few months. Countries in Europe are facing fourth waves of infection and fourth rounds of lockdowns.
In response to rising infection rates, Austria became the first western country to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all eligible adults. Beginning Feb. 1, Austria will begin issuing fines to the unvaccinated. Amid the backlash and possibility of a U.S. vaccine mandate, we’re taking another look at UNC’s COVID-19 vaccine policies.
UNC’s current vaccine policy
UNC students are not currently required to be vaccinated, but unvaccinated students must participate in asymptomatic testing once a week. However, UNC faculty and staff, including part-time and temporary employees, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars, are required to be vaccinated per Executive Order 14042.
Executive Order 14042, issued in September, requires that employees who work for the federal government or for government contractors must be vaccinated by Jan. 18.
Ten states, not including North Carolina, filed a lawsuit in October contesting the order. The lawsuit alleges that President Biden overstepped and that individual states, not the federal government, should have control over vaccine mandates.
Still, a vaccine mandate currently exists for UNC’s employees.
Could UNC mandate the vaccine for students?
Short answer: it could. Hundreds of universities in the U.S., including Duke and Wake Forest, have already implemented vaccine mandates for students, with medical and religious exceptions permitted.
Additionally, there is a precedent for requiring vaccinations for enrollment. UNC also already requires several vaccinations for enrollment: hepatitis B, polio, measles and mumps, among others.
What is the problem?
Although many public universities — including the University of California System — do have vaccine mandates, it’s more complicated for public institutions. A UNC vaccine mandate would be a UNC System mandate, applying to all 17 schools. The UNC-Chapel Hill administration cannot introduce a mandate.
But President Peter Hans stated in a memo from April that he does not believe the Board of Governors has the legal authority to do so either.
The memo states that the North Carolina Commission for Public Health “is the only entity clearly authorized by state law to mandate immunizations for college students in this state.” Hans cites concerns about lawsuits, students’ rights and vaccine hesitancy.
However, Hans’ memo is dated — since it was published, the Pfizer BioNTech has received official FDA approval and over 200,000 more Americans have died as a result of the virus.
The situation is still dire and the Board of Governors is ignoring a critical tool to improve public safety across UNC institutions.
If you have not done so already, the Editorial Board strongly encourages you to get your COVID-19 vaccine and to continue wearing your mask to protect not only yourself but the community around you.
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