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The Daily Tar Heel

A look back at UNC's COVID-19 vaccine response

High school senior and Chapel Hill resident Maliah Austine receives her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination at the Friday Center on Monday, Mar. 22, 2021. Austine, a member of N.C. vaccination Group 3, has been working at her in-person job for several months during the pandemic.

About a year ago, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered to front-line healthcare workers throughout the country, and it was unknown when college-aged students would be able to get vaccinated. Now, the University has reported that 94 percent of the student body and 90 percent of all employees are fully vaccinated as of Nov. 30.

How did we get here?

In Jan., Campus Health gained approval to become a site for vaccination storage and distribution and began planning an on-campus vaccine clinic for students. However, with students falling into Group 5 of the vaccine rollout plan, University health officials said it was unlikely that most students would receive the first dose of the vaccine before late spring or early summer of 2021.

By the end of the month, student health care workers were some of the first students able to receive their first dose of the vaccine.

In March, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced in a campus message that University employees and student employees with in-person roles were also able to receive the vaccine, but it remained unclear when the general student population would be able to get it. 

However, due to the rapid rollout of vaccines across the state, the process for eligibility was accelerated to include all North Carolinian adults by April 7.

On Mar. 31, Campus Health opened its first on-campus vaccination clinic in the Student Stores Wendy’s, where it was able to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to students. With a plentiful supply of the vaccine available, Campus Health expanded its operations to offer the Moderna vaccine to student household members in May.

Entering the fall semester, the University required students to either attest that they were vaccinated or participate in twice-weekly testing to return to campus. However, in the face of breakthrough cases and surges of the new delta variant, students and faculty alike felt uncertain about returning to in-person instruction. 

In early Sept., a student-run organization called Vaccinate UNC Now organized a series of protests demanding that the University implement a student vaccine mandate. 

In an Aug. 24 interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Guskiewicz said he is in favor of a vaccine mandate, but that the University does not have the authority to implement such a guideline. 

"Right now, the UNC System has advised campuses that under state law, the only group that can actually mandate a vaccine is the North Carolina Commission for Public Health," Guskiewicz said in the interview. "And if they were to mandate the vaccine, then the UNC System would be able to mandate the vaccine."

This is a reference to a memo published on April 29 by UNC System President Peter Hans, in which he also cites the lack of a state or federal vaccine mandate as a reason for why the university system cannot implement one of its own. 

Since then, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration implemented a vaccine mandate for employers with 100 or more employees in a Nov. 5 directive, which has faced legal challenges. 

Despite these pressures, the Carolina Together Testing Program announced on Oct. 6 that it would be reducing the biweekly unvaccinated testing requirement to once a week.

On Oct. 25, Guskiewicz announced in a campus message that, due to a executive order from President Biden, all University employees would be required to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18, 2022. But on Nov. 30, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to halt the national vaccine mandate for health care workers, which was set to begin next week. 

Where are we now?

At the end of Oct., the Carolina Vaccination Clinic began administering booster shots for all three of the COVID-19 vaccines to students 18 years of age and older. Students who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine were eligible for their booster after six months since their second dose, while those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were recommended for their booster after two months since they were vaccinated.

Since Aug. 2021, the University has seen a 1.10 percent positivity rate with a total of 979 COVID-19 cases as of Nov. 30. 

The University has not implemented a student vaccine mandate, but with the spring 2022 semester quickly approaching, it remains unclear what another year of COVID-19 vaccine policies will look like.

@GMolero1 | @kelly2cats_

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