Illinois college students are next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine after dozens of county health departments — outside of Chicago and Cook County — broadened eligibility Monday to all residents over 16.
But some Illinois universities aren’t able to offer the shots on campus yet. It’s not clear if that will happen in the next few weeks, before students disperse for summer break and potentially seed new infections in their home communities. And the big question — will local schools require the vaccine? — remains unsettled.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alerted students Monday about a “select number” of vaccine appointments for people who live or work in Champaign County. More spots are expected to open as supply increases.
For now, U. of I. isn’t mandating that students get the vaccine. The university is “still gathering information” on that and working to set up a campus vaccination site, pending approval from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, according to spokeswoman Robin Kaler.
“Since the semester ends in a few weeks, we have requested Johnson & Johnson whenever possible for our students,” Kaler said, referring to the one-dose shot. “No matter what vaccine is offered, we plan to open a vaccine location at the Campus Recreation Center East ... And we’d work to offer vaccine opportunities for our students throughout the summer and into the Fall 2021 semester.”
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Until then, students will have to scour local pharmacies and county-run sites for open appointments, which can fill up fast.
Chancellor Robert Jones told faculty members last month that decisions about vaccine requirements will be made by the Illinois Department of Public Health. He addressed the issue during a meeting of the academic senate, days after Rutgers University became the first institution to announce it will require all students enrolled in fall 2021 classes to get the vaccine.
Since then, Cornell and Nova Southeastern universities have also shared plans that mandate shots. Students can request exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
In Illinois, state law already requires all domestic and international college students to receive proper immunizations for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and meningitis. The law was last amended in 2016. Students typically submit proof of vaccination to their schools’ health centers upon enrollment.
An IDPH spokeswoman wouldn’t say if the agency plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the law, known as the College Immunization Code. She said there are also “no plans at this time” to provide vaccine allocations directly to colleges for campus clinics, which some other states are doing.
“Over the course of the next few months IDPH will work with the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and other stakeholders to develop appropriate guidance for students returning to the classroom,” according to a statement. “Private colleges and universities have the ability to enforce their own rules and policies regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.”
A spokeswoman for IBHE said its “not currently issuing guidance mandating vaccines” but encourages students, teachers and staff to receive the vaccine when eligible and to keep following public health guidance.
Prominent private schools such as Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago won’t require vaccines at this juncture.
“We have asked Northwestern students, faculty and staff to voluntarily disclose whether they have received a vaccine,” a school spokeswoman said. “As more members of our community gain access to shots, we will revisit whether we will require vaccination.”
Schools on the quarter system, like Northwestern and U. of C., don’t end until mid-June so there’s more time to offer them shots.
Labor and employment attorney Michael Jones, who consults with higher education clients, said the decision to require vaccinations is more likely a messaging dilemma than a legal one.
“The universities don’t want to alienate their student base or their family members,” said Jones, a Philadelphia-based partner at the firm Eckert Seamans. “From a public relations standpoint, they don’t want to look heavy-handed.”
Jones said he expects most schools to adopt a middle-of-the-road approach. Instead of mandating that all students to get the shots, Jones said, colleges might require them for those living in dorms or attending in-person classes, while continuing to offer remote options for students who don’t consent. That could be more feasible for larger institutions with resources to continue providing online learning, he said.
“It’s a bit like a carrot and a stick,” Jones said. “The carrot of being allowed more freedom and more of a return to normal is what a lot of schools are going to look at as a way to encourage broad vaccination without having to put down a blanket mandate across the campus.”
As they wait to hear more from their schools, some but not all Illinois college students can start signing up for their shots.
More than 80 county health departments have already expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older. That includes students in McClean County, where Illinois State University is located; Peoria County, home of Bradley University; and McDonough County, which includes Western Illinois University. Only ISU and WIU have been able to set up vaccination sites on campus, mostly for faculty and staff.
The portion of Cook County outside Chicago is expected to open the vaccine up to all residents over 16 on April 12. Chicago, which receives its own vaccine allocations from the federal government, is poised to do so in May.
Students with high-risk medical conditions or those with jobs on campus, in healthcare or in school settings are already eligible.
Other states are farther along in inoculating college students, a group thought to be particularly effective at spreading COVID-19.
Ohio is making a concerted push to provide college students with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at mass vaccination sites before the school year ends. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that’s because college students are more likely spread the virus through social interactions even if they’re less likely to become seriously ill. All residents became eligible March 29, and the one-dose shot can speed up the immunization process since a second shot isn’t necessary.
Indiana gave college students access to the vaccine beginning March 23. Purdue University has received an allocation of vaccines from its state health department and is opening a campus site Tuesday to “help vaccinate as many students as possible before the end of the spring semester.” Students are “strongly encouraged” to receive the vaccine but not required.