Opinion: Ga. public colleges should require COVID shot

We are sure to have a significant proportion of students who choose not to get vaccinated, and we are therefore unlikely to achieve herd immunity.

The University System of Georgia has refused to allow its member colleges and universities to institute COVID-19 vaccine mandates for the 2021 fall semester, and unfortunately there is no evidence that the university presidents have pushed back. Let me explain why this is a bad policy decision, driven by politics and not by concern for the health of the public.

What do I know about the pandemic? First, I am a family physician and professor of epidemiology who has been doing research on acute respiratory infections for over 20 years, including 6 published studies on COVID-19 to date. I designed and taught a course on disease outbreak investigation at UGA. I currently edit a reference for primary care physicians and wrote the chapter on COVID-19, and with two colleagues have written over 220 summaries of COVID-19 studies for the American Academy of Family Physicians. All that is to say, I have been immersed in research and teaching about COVID-19 for the past 15 months.

Based on this expertise, here are the facts as I see them with regards to vaccines and our university campuses. Last fall, UGA had about 2,500 symptomatic infections between August 17 and September 13 alone, leading the nation at one point. In published research, we estimated that at least 40% of UGA students have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, with some experiencing symptoms but many having no symptoms. However, we do not know how long-lasting that immunity is, and certainly can’t count on infections last August or September to protect students this fall if they’re not immunized.

Dr. Mark Ebell

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

About 1 in 15,000 young adults with COVID-19 dies, and with 40% of the 39,000-person UGA student body presumably infected, we would expect on average one student to have died at UGA due to COVID-19. We got lucky, apparently, for which I am very grateful. However, there has been at least one death of a young member of the staff. Further, CDC research showed that university communities with in-person instruction had higher rates of community spread than comparable universities that went online.

Nationally, only 37% of persons in the 18 to 29-year-old group have had at least one vaccination, and vaccination rates are significantly lower than average in Georgia overall, and rates are slowing. Alarmingly, the rate of vaccination is even lower than the state average in Athens-Clarke County. We are sure to have a significant proportion of students who choose not to get vaccinated, and we are therefore unlikely to achieve herd immunity. That is why the American College Health Association has recommended that all colleges and universities mandate COVID-19 vaccination for returning students.

Of course, there is a strong precedent for mandating vaccines. Universities in Georgia currently mandate vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, varicella, and hepatitis B for incoming students. Combined, these conditions cause only a small handful of deaths in young adults nationally every year. COVID-19, on the other hand, has killed more than 2,200 young adults aged 18 to 29 so far in the U.S. COVID-19 is orders of magnitude more dangerous than these other diseases, yet the USG and university presidents refuse to mandate vaccination.

Both Pfizer and Moderna are close to getting full authorization for their vaccines, so the fig leaf that they can’t be mandated because they are under an emergency use authorization is about to disappear.

The COVID-19 vaccines are among the safest and most effective vaccines ever developed. The more than 70,000 participants in the first two large vaccine studies are now approaching one year of follow-up, with no sign of ill effects or complications, and the vaccines have demonstrated safety in all age groups studied to date and in hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Like UGA, Indiana University is a large public university in a state led by Republicans, and they have mandated COVID-19 vaccination for the entire campus. Hundreds of other colleges and universities in the U.S., both public and private, are mandating vaccines this fall, including 6 so far in Georgia. The chancellor of the University System of Maryland, a state with a Republican governor, instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all public universities in the state and said: “Mandating a COVID vaccine is the most effective strategy we have, especially as we try to reach herd immunity.”

Yet the presidents of our public universities in Georgia refuse to push back against the USG ban on mandates, passively accepting this politically motivated decision. Wishful thinking and politics, not science, appear to rule the day.

I therefore ask that the University System of Georgia and the leaders of Georgia’s public universities put the health of our communities first and mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students, faculty and staff, with appropriate exemptions. A vaccine mandate is simply the right thing to do. Anything else puts our communities at risk.

Mark H. Ebell, M.D., M.S., is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Georgia.