By Robert Chiossi – Student Journalist and Author
Plans for the fall semester, vaccination registration for students through the Rutgers Portal, and concerns about the university’s recent vaccine mandate were topics of discussion during the university’s bi-weekly Covid-19 Health Briefing with University Chancellor, Brian L. Strom and Executive Vice President Chief Operating Officer, Antonio M. Calcado on April 15.
As New Jersey’s rate of Covid-19 cases and deaths continued to climb, the news out of Rutgers University was one of hope and optimism. The university averages 10,000-11,000 coronavirus tests per week. The number was slightly less during the spring break period. “In the past week we’ve done roughly another 10,000 tests, with only 51 positive cases,” Strom said. The results show the University’s rate of positivity of .53, considerably less than that the state’s rate of 11. “We continue to maintain the university as an island of health in a sea of disease,” he said. Strom attributed the accomplishment to the University’s aggressive contact tracing procedures.
In the past two weeks Rutgers has launched a new vaccination portal and university officials strongly urged all students to register. Governor Phil Murphy announced that starting on April 19 all residents 16 and older are eligible for the vaccine. The university is ready to begin vaccinating, but vaccines are not yet available at Rutgers. “Moving forward, don’t wait for us,” Strom said. “If you can get vaccines someplace else, get it. The best vaccine is the one you can get right now.”
This news comes on the heels of a pause in the administration of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. The CDC and FDA’s review of the J&J vaccine began after six cases of a rare blood clot were reported. All cases occurred in women between the ages of 18 and 48. Nearly 6.8 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the U.S. Symptoms include abdominal pains, severe headache as well as shortness of breath, and typically occur between six and 13 days after the vaccination. Until the data can be fully reviewed the vaccine has been put on pause. Strom compared the odds of developing complication to that of being struck by lightning.
Vice President Calcado addressed concerns pertaining to the recent mandate and the coming fall semester. “The fall to us means that we are going to be back at 100%,” Calcado said. “Just not all at the same time.” The university envisions a mixture of remote working along with rotational schedules for the staff. These measures will be combined with a strong adherence to social distancing and public health guidelines. A revised bus schedule is being put in place for the fall to increase additional distance within the buses themselves. “However, this is a fluid situation,” Calcado said and could change as soon as May or summer.
Rutgers University President, Jonathan Holloway, explained in an email why students were being mandated to become vaccinated, while faculty and staff were not. “The guidance regarding student vaccinations expands on the usual requirements for multiple immunizations that students have to typically demonstrate that they have received,” said Holloway. “Covid-19 is now being added to that list.” He further explained that the data gathered this semester at Rutgers reflects that the positivity rate of students is 60 to 70 percent higher than that of the faculty and staff. “This is to be expected since they are highly mobile and highly interactive given that they often study and live in congregate settings,” he said.
A Rutgers University spokesperson explained further in an email that the institutions main focus was on the safety of the students. “Our testing results indicate that students are the cohort that would most benefit from mandatory vaccines and we are putting their safety first,” he said. With vaccinations available to higher education faculty and staff, the university expects that they will become vaccinated by September.
Presently, Rutgers is only accepting vaccines authorized for use in the United States. International students who have already received the AstraZeneca vaccine are being told that the university is working through this problem and will have an answer soon. It was the intention of Rutgers to release the information regarding the mandate as early as possible to allow students and their families time to make their own decisions regarding the fall semester. There are several reasons that a student can request an exemption from the mandate. Religious and medical reasons as well as fully online and remote/continuing education classes are the only allowances that the school will accept as exemption from the mandate. Students can access the Rutgers website student health portal to request an exemption. “We do not have an exemption for vaccine hesitance, or if you don’t want to take a vaccine,” Calcado said.
Calcado went on to explain that the university understands and respects the choices of the students and their families. He acknowledged that some may decide that a gap year is in order and others may feel that a transfer would be appropriate.
It is still unclear what the Fall semester will look like. There is much that is not known about the possibility of booster shots, and the vaccination effectiveness against Covid variants. “This pandemic is not going to go away,” Strom added. “We will learn to coexist with this virus. It is not going to disappear.”