Rutgers University has announced that students must be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus this fall. All three of its locations – New Brunswick, Camden and Newark – will require students to have the jab, making it the first American university to violate students’ health freedom by essentially forcing them to get an experimental vaccine.
Students must prove they have been vaccinated in a mandate that will even apply to 17-year-olds, who currently are only eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine. There will only be a few exemptions issued for those who cannot get the vaccine on medical or religious grounds. It’s not yet clear how these exemptions will be granted and what sort of documentation will be needed. Those who take online or other types of off-campus courses exclusively will not need the vaccine.
A letter from the university signed by its president and other officials says: “Most important, a safer Rutgers community supports a safer New Jersey for our families, our friends, and our neighbors across the state.”
Faculty and staff are being encouraged to get the shot as soon as possible, but there are no specific requirements applying to them at this time. A Rutgers spokeswoman, Dory Devlin, said that students have a positivity rate that is as much as 70 percent higher than that of faculty and staff.
Devlin said: “Given that students are easily identified as a cohort creating transmission and infection, we chose to concentrate on them. Further, this is the community that goes back to their extended families and communities, and we believe that by concentrating on them, we will make New Jersey safer.”
The university believes that the requirement will allow for more face-to-face courses, a wider variety of on-campus events and activities, greater collaboration and better dining options.
Rutgers has an enrollment of 71,000 students, 51,200 of which are undergrads. More than 2,000 people at the school have tested positive since last May, including 1,756 students and 558 employees.
The requirement is particularly surprising given that a top official at the school said in January that the vaccine would not be required. On that occasion, Biomedical and Health Sciences Senior Vice Chancellor Vicente Gracias said: “Rutgers, with our stance of human liberties and our history of protecting that, the vaccine is not mandatory.”
A Pennsylvania attorney told CNN that the mandate is perfectly legal as long as processes are put in place for exemptions.
Nevertheless, Rutgers is currently the only university forcing its students to get a largely untested vaccine. A spokeswoman for the American College Health Association told USA Today: “While we know it has been a topic of discussion among campus decision-makers, at this point in time, we are not aware of any other colleges or universities that are mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for students.”
Rutgers also requires all students be vaccinated against other illnesses, such as measles, mumps and rubella.
Even those students who are inclined to get the vaccine despite the risks may face hurdles as getting the vaccine in New Jersey is currently rather difficult. The available doses are still limited to those with preexisting conditions, smokers, and people who are 65 or older. However, federal officials have said that they believe vaccines will be available to every American who wants one by the end of May.
The university’s website says that students, staff and faculty on campus must continue to participate in the school’s COVID testing program, wear masks and practice social distancing.
As the vaccines become more widely available, it won’t be surprising to see more schools following in Rutgers’ footsteps. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of what is likely to be a long list of places people who are not willing to get the vaccine will be unwelcome.
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