BOSTON – Massachusetts community colleges are tightening their COVID-19 vaccination and testing policies as state public health officials try to reach unvaccinated young adults who have increased overall infection rates.
Starting in January, the state’s 15 community colleges will require students, educators and staff to be vaccinated.
The move is a reversal for many community colleges across the state, which announced earlier this year that they have no plans to mandate vaccinations. At the time, community college leaders raised concerns about the impact on minorities and other students with “disproportionate access” to vaccines, among other issues.
Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, said the decision was also based on the fact that most community colleges do not have dormitories and because COVID-19 vaccines were scarce and only allowed for use in the community. ’emergency.
“But vaccines are widely available now, so we’re less concerned about access to vaccinations, and of course the delta variant has increased the infectivity of the virus,” Glenn said. “So, for the safety of our students and staff, we have decided that it is time.”
Glenn said north Essex has organized mobile vaccination clinics at its Haverhill and Lawrence campuses to increase rates with the looming terms.
Details of vaccination policies are still being worked out by colleges, such as whether regular COVID-19 testing will be allowed as an alternative, or whether they will offer accommodations for religious and medical reasons.
All employees will have to be vaccinated, the details of which will be the subject of collective agreements between colleges and civil servants’ unions.
Jim Durkin, legislative director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union believes that “vaccines are the safest and most effective way to reduce the spread of the disease. COVID-19 and variants of the virus ”, but that“ any policy on vaccinations must be established through discussions and negotiations with the union ”.
“While a majority of our members may have already been vaccinated, many others have understandable concerns that we believe should be addressed before any policy is implemented,” Durkin said in a statement.
Legal experts say community colleges are on solid legal ground by imposing mandates.
Public schools and colleges have for years demanded that incoming students be vaccinated against measles and other infectious diseases.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines last year that federal law does not prevent private employers from requiring vaccines or proof of vaccination from employees.
The sprawling five-campus system at the University of Massachusetts has previously announced that it will require incoming students to be vaccinated this fall, unless they have been granted a religious or medical exemption from the rules.
Granted, there are no federal or state mandates for COVID-19 vaccines in schools or colleges, public or private.
While young people are spared the worst health effects of COVID-19, they are still among the majority of people who fall ill as the state tries to step up vaccinations amid a highly contagious strain of the virus.
Data from the state’s Department of Public Health shows people between the ages of 20 and 29 account for the majority of new COVID-19 infections – or 3,272 new cases in the past two weeks.
Medical experts say lower vaccination rates among young people, combined with an increased risk of infection, are behind the outbreak.
Dr William Heineman, President of North Shore Community College, points out that unlike many public and private universities, community colleges face a great challenge from the students and staff who come and go from their campuses, homes, and universities. communities, potentially spreading the virus or infected.
“Our students may spend less time with other students, but they blend in more with the world than students at a residential college,” he said. “We do not have the ability to quarantine students in the event of an epidemic.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for newspapers and the North of Boston Media Group websites. Email him at [email protected]