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Michigan universities pull together fall vaccine policies

Three of Michigan’s 15 public universities have announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates, while others are evaluating plans.

LANSING, Mich. — Three of Michigan’s 15 public universities have announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates, while others are evaluating plans or implementing other strategies to increase immunizations among students.

The University of Michigan and Oakland University both will require vaccines for students who want to live on campus. Michigan’s Dearborn campus will require everyone on campus to provide proof of vaccination or weekly negative tests.

It was a good move for U of M to make early plans for students to return to classes safely, student body President Nithya Arun said. She said the university owes it to its over 48,000 students to make timely decisions to keep them safe after a confusing fall semester when students learned they’d come back to campus just two months before classes started and then were sent home by Thanksgiving.

She hasn’t heard opposition to the school’s vaccination requirement, but knows that there is misinformation and hesitancy about the vaccine on campus.

“Some students have said that because they’ve gotten COVID, they don’t need to get vaccinated, which is not true,” Arun said. “I think, on our end, we want to develop some sort of a vaccine literacy campaign and disseminate that information to students.”

A safe return in the fall is possible, but the university must educate and advocate for vaccines, student government representative Carla Voigt said. And the university has a good start by opening up a vaccination clinic in The Big House.

People of color, specifically Black Americans, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 economically, in case counts and now in slower rates of getting the vaccine. UofM students are not exempt from these challenges, Arun said, and student government is responding with a proposed People of Color Impact Task Force.

A study created by the student government earlier this year asked 8,000 students about their COVID-19 plans and needs. Of the 1,027 responses, about 20% of Black-identifying participants said they were not going to get the vaccine, compared to about 3% of white-identifying students.

The easiest and safest way for schools to have a regular fall semester is by getting as many students vaccinated as possible, said Bob Murphy, chief policy officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

“I think some universities will continue to evaluate whether a mandate is needed, but I think they would all prefer that students go out and take care of themselves and their community members by getting the vaccine of their own decision,” Murphy said.

Wayne State University offered students a $10 credit to their student account that can be used for Grubhub orders if they send in proof of vaccination.

Mannat K. Bedi, Wayne State Student Senate director of community affairs, said that even without a vaccine mandate, students getting an instant reward for something that already benefited them made the program effective.

“Me personally, I will always go to certain campus events because it’s fun, but also there’s prizes and things,” Bedi said. “Other schools should do it because it’s definitely motivating students to get the vaccine.”

Wayne State also implemented a flu vaccine mandate in the fall to give the campus a better shot at fighting off the serious mixture of the COVID-19 pandemic and a flu outbreak. Of the faculty, staff and students who came to campus, 94% provided proof of immunization, said university spokesman Matt Lockwood.

Michigan State University hasn’t made a final decision on vaccines and is evaluating different ways to entice students to get a vaccine, spokesman Dan Olsen said. The university has operated a clinic out of the campus Pavilion, which has provided the university community and public nearly 5,000 doses.

Olsen said the university is evaluating data from the National Norms Center at MSU, which conducted surveys surrounding students’ perceptions of vaccines and returning to school to learn what drives student vaccination rates.

The National College Health Assessment, which the center administers every few years to poll students’ health habits and behaviors, looked at COVID-19 vaccines and found 81% of MSU students out of 905 respondents said they wanted the COVID-19 vaccine in March.

When the same group was asked in April what “getting back to normal” meant to them, the top three responses in order were: Attending in-person classes; interacting with others without COVID-19 safety precautions; and attending sporting events.

The center’s Executive Director Dennis Martell said the results were a bit surprising.

“We underestimate the students’ desire to get back to normal,” Martell said. “They want to get back to in-person classes, being able to socialize and attending events on campus.”

Of the 12% that said in March that they were unsure about getting a vaccine, those who indicated on the survey that it would be OK for the center to reach out to them will be offered a $5 Starbucks credit for proof of vaccination. Martell said the university will keep monitor whether the incentive has an impact on the group and may consider implementing a similar program for other students.

Martell said what’s really driving vaccinations at MSU is a desire among students to reconnect with each other.

“It’s about those people who really want to have experience to be in the classroom,” Martell said. “I will never say that the Spartan spirit is better than any other university, but there’s a real Spartan spirit of ‘together we will.’”

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