'We are running out of time': LSU board urges state health department to require COVID vaccines
The LSU Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 Friday to urge the Louisiana Department of Health to add COVID-19 shots to a list of mandated vaccinations for college students once federal regulators give full approval to the vaccines.
The vote came after the board adopted an amendment to notify students that they could opt out of a mandate for health, religious or other reasons.
Students have long had the ability to opt out of other required vaccines, such as for measles or mumps, but few have realized that or done so. Faculty members fear that notifying students that they can ignore any COVID-19 requirement will undercut the school's efforts to increase vaccination rates as more dangerous variants of the virus spread.
Tom Galligan, president of the LSU system, said 73% of the faculty and 57% of staff at the flagship campus in Baton Rouge have reported being vaccinated against COVID-19. However only about 27% of the campus’s 35,000 students have reported being vaccinated.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 522 college campuses around the country have required the vaccine, with 221 of them being public institutions. Private universities in Louisiana, including Tulane, Loyola, Dillard and Xavier, say they will require their students to receive vaccines before the fall semester starts.
The Louisiana Legislature passed a bill recently banning state agencies, including publicuniversities, from discriminating against people based on their vaccination status while the vaccines are still approved only for emergency use.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has expressed concern about the bill but has not said if he would veto it.
Pfizer and Moderna, two of the main COVID vaccine makers, have applied for full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, but that is not likely to come before school resumes in August.
Meredith Veldman, associate professor of history at LSU in Baton Rouge, said in an interview that she was pleased that the board passed the resolution but disappointed about the amendment.
“All vaccination requirements have always had the possibility of a religious or medical exemption, so there’s no reason to add to it,”' she said.
“As a teacher, I was surprised that some of the members of the board clearly did not do their homework,” she added, saying the discussion “showed that they hadn’t read” documents expressing the faculty concerns.
Before the full LSU board voted Friday, the resolution without the amendment was approved 4-3 by the board’s academic committee.
The board considered the issue in response to resolutions by two faculty governing bodies and the LSU Student Senate urging the school to require the vaccines.
The main opponent on the committee was Jack "Jay" Blossman Jr., a Mandeville attorney.
“I'm not telling my kids they have to get the shot,” he said. “I wouldn't want to tell anybody’s kids that they got to get the shot.”
To faculty members and others concerned about returning to packed classrooms with unvaccinated students, he said: “If you're worried about COVID, get the shot.”
Blossman failed in an attempt to require all faculty and staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before the board considered whether students should have to get it.
His comments came after Veldman and other LSU faculty members urged the board to require students to have the vaccines.
“I’m here to also emphasize that COVID policies are also educational policies,” said Daniel Tirone, an LSU associate political science professor.
“The education of our students was significantly impacted when we moved all the instruction online in the spring of 2020,” he said, adding that the school “had no choice but to do so.” Faculty members said they would like to return to in-class instruction in the fall but warned that low vaccination rates could lead to an outbreak that could force the school to shift back online.
“We are running out of time,” Veldman told the board.
“The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, which now accounts for 12% of Louisiana cases, is on track to be the dominant form in our state by the time the fall semester begins,” she said. “This variant is far more lethal, far more transmissible and better at overcoming partial vaccination than earlier variants. We know that the double-shot vaccine takes six weeks to become fully effective, and students begin arriving on campus in eight weeks.”
Dr. Lee Mallett, a member at large on the LSU board, offered the amendment to inform students of their right to opt out of any required vaccine.
Blossman and Rémy Voisin Starns were the two board members who voted against the resolution on final passage.