Georgia colleges push for students to get COVID-19 vaccine

Atlanta HBCUs, Emory mandating student vaccines; state university system not requiring them
Georgia Tech nurse Melanie Thomas administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot to student Grayson Prince at its Exhibition Hall on July 20, 2021. The school has been doing vaccinations on Tuesdays this summer for students and employees. (Eric Stirgus /

Credit: Eric Stirgus /

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech nurse Melanie Thomas administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot to student Grayson Prince at its Exhibition Hall on July 20, 2021. The school has been doing vaccinations on Tuesdays this summer for students and employees. (Eric Stirgus /

Credit: Eric Stirgus /

Morehouse College senior Olamide Fagbamiye is excited about returning to campus next month after more than a year away from the hallowed grounds, but he may not see all of his friends there again.

The historically Black college and other members of the Atlanta University Center announced in April they are requiring students get the COVID-19 vaccine to return to campus this fall. To date, about 30% of Morehouse students have provided proof of vaccination. The percentage is the same at Clark Atlanta University. Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman are at 55% and 49%, respectively. Classes start Aug. 18.

COVID-19 cases soared in the early weeks of the fall semester last year at many of Georgia’s largest public universities. Some experts are worried about similar outbreaks in August, particularly among students living in campus and Greek life housing.

The four private schools, and others across Georgia, are pushing for students to get vaccinated as the semester nears. Public health experts say it’s important, particularly as COVID-19 cases increase statewide and deaths are rising again across the nation in large part due to the contagious Delta variant. About half of new cases in Georgia are among 18- to 39-year-olds. More young people are being hospitalized for COVID-19, says Dr. Carlos del Rio, a global public health professor for Emory University.

“Unvaccinated young people are driving the epidemic,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Emory, Georgia’s largest private university, is mandating COVID-19 student vaccinations. Almost 600 colleges and universities nationally are requiring vaccines for at least some students or employees, according to information compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. At the same time, a handful of states have passed laws to prevent colleges from mandating vaccinations.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp banned vaccine mandates in state government, meaning that no local school board or public university can require vaccinations for students or staffers. “While I continue to urge all Georgians to get vaccinated so we continue our momentum of putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview, vaccination is a personal decision between each citizen and a medical professional — not the state government,” Kemp said in a statement at the time.

While not required, the University System of Georgia is offering vaccinations at 15 campuses statewide. Emory has been offering the vaccine to students and employees. The Atlanta University Center held a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday evening with Fulton County Board of Health director Dr. Lynn Paxton to address lingering questions about the vaccine.

“We want to protect our communities and this is the best way to do it,” said Michael Hodge, the center’s interim executive director.

Fagbamiye has heard questions from classmates about the vaccine and was initially reluctant to get inoculated. He did so several months ago after listening to experts and doing research. He hosted a recent online session on the college’s YouTube page to discuss vaccinations.

“I really got a lot of knowledge about it,” said Fagbamiye, 21, a sociology major and public health minor. “It just made sense to me to make that decision (to get vaccinated).”

Credit: Courtesy of Morehouse College

Credit: Courtesy of Morehouse College

‘You are not invincible’

Research shows college-age students are among the groups most reluctant to get the vaccine. About one-half of 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide — the average age range of college students — had been vaccinated or definitely planned to get the vaccine, according to a federal survey released in June. The numbers were slightly higher among those between the ages of 25 and 29, 30 and 34 as well as 35- to 39-year-olds.

Other colleges across the country mandating the vaccine have rates similar to those at Atlanta’s HBCUs, according to published reports, and pressure is mounting to get students vaccinated.

More than 150 Emory faculty members have signed a petition started earlier this month demanding everyone on any campus to be fully vaccinated two weeks prior to the start of classes. Students are required to be vaccinated while employees who haven’t gotten the vaccine must submit to weekly testing. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which includes Savannah State University, announced Tuesday a mandatory vaccination policy will be in place for student-athletes competing in the conference starting this fall. Savannah State is part of the University System of Georgia, which is encouraging, but not mandating vaccinations at its 26 public colleges and universities across the state.

Del Rio said young people haven’t been getting vaccinated because they haven’t taken COVID-19 seriously. The death rate has been lower among young people, and they know fewer people hospitalized by COVID-19. Del Rio said they’re less likely to get health care and more likely to be exposed to the virus.

“We need to remind young people that you are not invincible ...,” he said.

Tuskegee and vaccine reluctance

The Atlanta University Center schools held classes virtually last year. This fall will be the first semester students are back on campus.

Student reaction was mixed in April when the mandate was announced. All schools in the center will require both vaccinated and non-vaccinated faculty, staff and students to wear masks and practice social distancing during the fall term. Masks can be removed while outdoors.

Roughly 170 students have requested exemptions from the vaccine requirement, the majority from Spelman, according to Atlanta University Center data. Students who don’t want to get the vaccine can take online courses, but officials warn they won’t be the same as the in-person experience. About 3,260 students at the four schools have provided proof of vaccination. The projected fall enrollment at the four schools is about 9,000 students.

Many African Americans have been reluctant to get the vaccine, invoking the government-backed Tuskegee study, in which scientists withheld treatment for decades from Black men who had syphilis and didn’t know it in order to see how the disease would progress.

“The one word I’ve heard over and over again is ‘Tuskegee,’ ” Paxton said during the hourlong meeting.

Several questions during the meeting focused on distrust of the government and conspiracy theories about the vaccines, such as the vaccine may cause infertility. Paxton stressed research and results, noting “this is turning into an epidemic among the unvaccinated.”

The HBCUs have posted question-and-answer pages on their websites to address these questions. They have videos with students and administrators advocating vaccinations. Another HBCU, Florida A&M University, is taking a different approach. It announced Thursday it’s creating a drawing to offer cash prizes or iPads to students who get vaccinated.

Del Rio said vaccinations increased among young people as public health officials relaxed mask requirements in many places. Similar strategies must be considered to increase vaccination rates, he said.

For Georgia Tech student Grayson Prince, the successful vaccination strategy was protecting his grandmother. Prince waited Tuesday afternoon at Georgia Tech’s Exhibition Hall to get his first vaccine shot. Approximately 17,000 people at Georgia Tech have been vaccinated. More than 47,000 students and employees were regularly on campus there last year.

Prince, 20, a senior, is planning to visit his grandmother in Sacramento, California, next month and decided to get the vaccine as a measure of protection.

“I just wanted to make sure I was safe and she was safe and all my family was safe,” he said.

About the Author