With a 99.6% student vaccination rate and a 97.5% employee vaccination rate, Haverford’s campus is about as protected from COVID-19 as it can be. As a result, many students believe that the fall 2021 semester has felt much more normal than any of the previous three semesters. Yet, the process of obtaining such a strongly protected campus community was not easy, and many students and faculty are still unaware of what it looked like behind the scenes.
After offering the COVID-19 vaccine to the entire community last spring, Haverford’s next step was determining if and how they could make proof of vaccination a requirement to live and learn on campus. On April 28, the vaccine requirement was officially announced via email. Vice President of the College Jesse Lytle said that announcing this in April put Haverford on the early side for declaring a vaccination requirement compared to other colleges and universities. He noted that it was not a question of if they wanted to do it, but more a question of whether or not it was legally permissible to require an immunization that had been emergency authorized.
While almost everyone on campus is aware of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, not many are aware that the requirement includes various vaccines that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but rather by the World Health Organization (WHO). Lytle noted that not all international students, especially those who were not on campus last spring, had access to an FDA-approved vaccine before this fall. Therefore, the college allowed them to submit proof of a different vaccine, such as AstraZeneca in Europe and the CoronaVac in China, as long as it was approved by the WHO.
Still, Lytle added that after consulting with medical experts, the College encouraged these students to also get an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine when they arrived in the United States, especially if the vaccine that they received abroad had been proven less effective than the FDA-approved options.
While many students and faculty were eager to get immunized, a small group of community members preferred to remain unvaccinated. Because this choice inherently puts the rest of the community at greater risk, the College instituted an application process for those wanting medical or religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine. The application consisted mainly of a written statement explaining the reason for which the individual was requesting exemption.
The College consulted with legal professionals in order to determine which exemptions to approve for both students and employees. As is evidenced by the slightly lower vaccination rate for employees, a few more faculty and staff members than students were granted exemptions. Lytle said that the number of applications from both groups was relatively small, and the exemptions that were granted represented a fairly even mix between medical and religious reasons.
While the decisions about whether or not to grant medical exemptions were fairly straightforward, Lytle said that determining the validity of religious exemption requests was more nuanced. In many of these cases, the College worked with lawyers to read doctrines of various religions with a focus on their commentary about vaccines. Further complicating the process, one could request religious exemption on the basis of a personal belief system. While this happened infrequently, the College and their lawyers had to focus intently on these requests to ensure that an anti-vaccine belief was part of a larger structure in the individual’s belief system, according to Lytle.
In light of the recent authorization of both the Pfizer and the Moderna booster shots for all adults, many community members are unsure if this will become part of the College’s vaccine requirement. According to Lytle, Haverford does not yet have plans to require the booster, but if the CDC’s definition of fully vaccinated were to change, it is likely that the College’s policy for students and faculty would change along with it. Lytle did not mention any plans to administer booster shots on campus, but reiterated that the College’s plans are always subject to change as the situation nationwide and guidelines from the CDC continue to evolve.
Although the College has been strict about its vaccination requirements for students, faculty, and staff, there is not currently a vaccine mandate for campus visitors. However, there are rules which prohibit visitors from going inside most buildings, and if they do go inside, they must be accompanied by a host who is aware of their vaccination status. Additionally, indoor public events, such as home sports contests, do not require every guest to be vaccinated but do require masking.
Overall, Lytle expressed a sense of satisfaction with the way that Haverford’s vaccination policy has thus far protected the campus community. While 24 students and 11 faculty/staff members have tested positive this semester, Lytle said that the cases have largely been mild, with many of those infected remaining asymptomatic. He noted that the purpose of the vaccine was never to completely stop people from contracting the virus, but to prevent them from becoming seriously ill or dying, and to his knowledge, it has done so successfully for the members of Haverford’s community.