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California’s massive UC and Cal State systems plan to require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall

People wait in line for vaccinations at Cal State L.A. on April 9.
Alex Harris, right, waits in line with a friend for COVID-19 vaccination at Cal State L.A. on April 9. The UC and Cal State systems announced that COVID-19 vaccinations will be required for students and staff.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The University of California and California State University announced Thursday that they will require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students, faculty and staff on campus properties this fall once the Food and Drug Administration gives formal approval to the vaccines and supplies are sufficiently available.

The directive is the largest of its kind in U.S. higher education, affecting more than 1 million members of the two public university systems. More than five dozen colleges nationwide have already announced they will require vaccination for enrollment this fall, including Yale, Princeton, Columbia and, in Claremont, Pomona and Claremont McKenna.

But the UC and Cal State systems have not yet taken that step because of questions over the legality of requiring vaccines before they have been formally approved by the FDA. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are being distributed under emergency use authorization, although health experts expect full approval of at least one of them by the fall. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is on pause after reports of rare blood clots.

The COVID-19 directive would allow for students or employees to seek an exemption based on medical or religious grounds. Current UC requirements for vaccinations against such illnesses as measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox allow for medical exemptions.

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“Together, the CSU and UC enroll and employ more than 1 million students and employees across 33 major university campuses, so this is the most comprehensive and consequential university plan for COVID-19 vaccines in the country,” Cal State Chancellor Joseph I. Castro said.

The University of California plans to bring students back to its 10 campuses for mostly in-person classes beginning in fall 2021.

UC President Michael V. Drake, a physician, said vaccinations are a “key step people can take to protect themselves, their friends and family, and our campus communities while helping bring the pandemic to an end.”

The two system leaders said they were making the announcement now to give students, families and employees ample time to plan their vaccinations before the fall terms begin. They will discuss the immunization requirement with students, faculty and labor unions.

The California Community Colleges, which serve 2.1 million students, said Thursday that they would leave vaccination policy decisions to the system’s 73 local districts. The nine-college Los Angeles Community College District has not yet announced whether it would require vaccines.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley encouraged students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 shot to speed a return to in-person instruction. “Everyone should make a plan now to get vaccinated if they haven’t already,” he said.

Dr. Carrie Byington, a UC executive vice president who heads UC Health, said the university system — which includes six academic health centers and 10 campuses — sought to set a national model in announcing the vaccination policy. The system’s researchers and health professionals have cared for California’s first COVID-19 patients, developed testing, trained contact tracers and given nearly 1 million vaccinations across the state.

Now UC and Cal State are aiming to use the collective gravitas of two of the nation’s largest and most prominent university systems to encourage mandatory vaccination policies at other campuses. Only 64 campuses — just four of them public — among 5,300 colleges and universities across the country were listed as requiring vaccinations on a Chronicle of Higher Education tracker as of Thursday.

“We really wanted to lead in this space,” Byington said in an interview Thursday. “UC and CSU are very large systems, and we absolutely believe that vaccination will be required for us to get back to levels of normal instruction on our campuses. And we know that this is an area of discussion right now across the country. We wanted to clearly communicate to our students, to our families, to our employees and to others in higher education the importance of vaccination.”

She said UC officials began working on the policy in October and concluded that vaccines were the most important tool to safely increase density on campuses, which have been virtually shut down for classes since March 2020. Their modeling indicated that outbreaks would still occur if less than 50% of students were vaccinated, she said.

Although the COVID-19 vaccines have not accumulated decades of evidence about their efficacy and safety — as have those for influenza, for instance — Byington said the data from hundreds of millions of shots given in the United States indicate that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are working well with “excellent safety.”

She added that less than 2% of UC students seek exemptions from current vaccine requirements.

Ashima Kundu, a 21-year-old neurobiology student at UC Irvine, said she and many of her friends support a vaccine requirement.

“I don’t know how in-person school would be conducted safely if there weren’t a vaccination requirement,” said Kundu, who works as an EMT and is vaccinated. “There’s a lot of lecture halls where students are sitting right next to each other, their elbows are touching.”

Zahraa Khuraibet, the president of the Cal State Student Assn., said student access to shots is critical to returning to campus.

“We want to ensure that COVID doesn’t become a barrier again,” she said. “There’s an excitement about the ability to return to campus, to be able to interact with other students, to go back to a learning environment that we’ve all been used to.”

The association will seek to ensure that Cal State sufficiently informs students about the new policy — including how to get the vaccine, apply for exemptions and submit verification — “to ensure that nobody’s left out,” Khuraibet said.

Among Cal State faculty members, any vaccination requirement “may or may not” make an in-person return more palatable, depending on what other safety protocols are in effect, said Charles Toombs, president of the California Faculty Assn. The union intends to bargain over the vaccine requirement, he said.

Both the UC and Cal State systems plan for mostly in-person instruction and activities this fall, although the degree will vary by campus. Campuses expect to continue such safety practices as masking, distancing and hand-washing.

At Claremont McKenna College, President Hiram Chodosh announced this month that all students would be required to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus this fall.

In an interview, Chodosh said the college is requiring only student vaccinations at this time because of pending questions over whether they can be required for employees before the FDA formally approves the vaccines. But he said he expected faculty and staff members to get the shots “as a matter of choice.”

COVID-19 vaccines are not required for K-12 schools because they are not yet approved for children younger than 16.

In California, COVID-19 transmission and hospitalizations related to the virus are low, and vaccinations are on the rise. More than 32% of Californians have been fully vaccinated, and more than 44% have had at least one dose, according to federal and state data.

Health experts believe that herd immunity — protection against the virus that occurs when a mass population has reached immunity through infection or vaccination — may be a long way off. But the idea of vaccine “passports” or requirements for vaccinations within certain spaces, such as school campuses or workplaces, could replicate that concept.

Some experts say that requiring vaccinations for students will make significant headway in containing the pandemic because their social gatherings have touched off COVID-19 surges around USC and UC Berkeley, among other campuses. California fared better than other states in the Midwest and Northeast last fall when comparing campus outbreaks to the case rate of surrounding communities. But the number of infections among younger residents who typically were asymptomatic was a major cause for concern.

“Outbreaks in colleges precipitated a larger statewide outbreak,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at UC San Francisco. “You have a lot of younger people who have social interactions, to put it mildly, and are living next to each other in relatively close quarters and dormitories. I think mandating vaccines like we do for a bunch of other types of infectious diseases is a reasonable thing to do to prevent outbreak and infection.”

Such student outbreaks underscore the importance of campus vaccinations to broader public health, experts said.

“From a public health strategy, it’s also a good idea. It turns out that even though young people don’t get severely ill with COVID-19, they are really good at transmitting [the] coronavirus,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine. “It’s important that we can get younger people vaccinated in order to slow down transmission.”

While there has been no statewide or federal mandate ordering residents to get any emergency-authorized COVID-19 vaccine, there has been some indication already that a show of proof may be necessary at times. California recently allowed live indoor events and performances to occur for counties in the red, orange or yellow tiers. Evidence of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are required for entry.

A strange tic in the law governing emergency authorization for new pharmaceuticals could hobble efforts at public colleges and universities.


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