Eastern WA universities consider requiring COVID vaccine

SPOKANE, Wash. – Some college students will have another to-do item this summer before starting school. Universities in Eastern Washington are mulling the idea of making the COVID-19 vaccine a requirement.

This has already been done in several colleges across the nation including two large university systems in California.

The conversation of making the COVID vaccine a requirement is a tough one. There are several different things universities have to figure out before making it a requirement.

In a smaller town where COVID hit hard in the fall, Washington State University is taking vaccinations seriously.

“WSU wants to take the lead in getting their students vaccinated so that when we get back together again, next fall, people can do it in a way that’s safe and we’re not going to be having the threat of sharing the illness among different individuals,” said Phil Weiler, the vice president of marketing and communications with WSU.

Weiler told 4 News Now they are leaning toward making it a requirement this fall.

“Our intent, our hope, is we’d be able to make this a requirement. We haven’t made a decision yet, but I think we’re close to making it,” he said.

Requiring a vaccine is not new for universities. WSU requires the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine on its Pullman campus because people live there.

One study even said the MMR vaccine was required at nearly 88 percent of college campuses surveyed.

The legalities of  it could be tricky, as the vaccines being used in the United States are able to be used through an emergency use authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, one issue brief with the American Council on Education says it’s “likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases.”

There are several other hurdles to overcome in making the vaccine a requirement; one is international students who are studying in the United States.

There are COVID vaccines in other countries that are approved, but not in the U.S.

“The policy we’re going to put in place, we’re going to tell those students and faculty, quite frankly, who might be coming from other countries, we’ll work with you on an individual basis to make sure that vaccine you receive is going to qualify,” Weiler said.

Another issue Weiler mentioned was figuring out how to determine if someone is actually vaccinated, since it’s considered to be someone’s medical record.

There are practices in place to keep them confidential, which could be the same case. However, for WSU specifically, since some vaccinations are required on some campuses and not others, it could be a little more difficult for them to figure that out.

“Those are the details that’ll be worked throughout the summer. We’re confident we’re going to be able to work through all these issues, all these logistical issue,” Weiler said.

Even if, and when, WSU makes that decision to make the COVID vaccine a requirement, it will make exemptions. It won’t just be for medical or religious reasons, but even for those who just don’t want it.

“We’ll have ample opportunity for people to get exemptions if they feel like they need to get one,” Weiler said. “We don’t want to get into an argument with an individual about whether or not he or she is going to get it.”

RELATED: WSU planning for in-person learning in Fall 2021

Currently, the university is planning on having “robust in-person” learning this fall. For this fall, that could mean a big lecture hall with more than 100 students might do the lecture online, but there will be smaller groups to discuss information and have face-to-face experience. Over the last year, it had few classes in person.

The goal is to even have more activities on campus for students to get involved in, as Weiler and the university knows those interactions can be important, too.

The one thing that helps them get closer to normal and offer more activities, Weiler says, is the vaccine.

The university is currently holding COVID vaccine clinics weekly for its students and staff. Weiler says they will have more than 2,500 students fully vaccinated by the end of this semester, which finals start in two weeks. Weiler said they hope to have a decision on the vaccine requirement before students are done with the semester.

“We want to make sure people understand that this is a public health issue and if we can get enough people vaccinated, than we can get back to normal,” Weiler said.

As for other universities in Eastern Washington, Gonzaga University says it has promoted and supported three vaccination clinics on its campus.

More than 1,200 students and employees have been vaccinated through those clinics and it knows many more have received their shots from other providers, the university said in a statement.

“GU has been having intentional conversations with senior leadership within the university and our Board of Trustees on this topic.  It is our position currently that we will continue to drive vaccination efforts for our students and employees.  The question as to whether Gonzaga will require all students to receive a vaccine before their return this fall will be made in the coming weeks, in conjunction with key partners such as the Spokane Regional Health District.”

Both Whitworth and Eastern Washington Universities say conversations are ongoing about requiring the COVID vaccine.

No final decision is made yet for any four of these universities, but they all tell 4 News Now they should have concrete answers in a few weeks. All four universities are planning for in-person classes in the fall, too.