This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
Faculty members at North Carolina State University are calling for a vaccine mandate for all students, faculty and staff with on-campus responsibilities. The school’s faculty senate passed a resolution calling for the mandate late Tuesday.
The resolution cites the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine last month and the university’s “responsibility to provide for the health and safety of its students, faculty, and staff.”
N.C. State is the largest campus in the UNC System with nearly 37,000 students, more than 2,400 faculty and more than 7,200 staff.
Last month, six former state health directors asked the UNC System to mandate vaccination at all of system’s universities. Student and faculty groups across the system have expressed their desire for a mandate, as have many chancellors. UNC System President Peter Hans and the UNC Board of Governors have not yet been willing to go that far.
In a message to chancellors last month, Hans said campuses should require students to submit to reentry testing, provide proof of vaccination or, if unvaccinated, undergo weekly testing at a minimum. Chancellors should also have a “get vaccinated or get tested regularly” measure in place for faculty and staff, Hans wrote.
“Vaccination is our best weapon against the virus,” Hans wrote in his e-mail to chancellors. “Vaccines are safe, free, and highly effective against all known variants. Since the vaccine became available last spring, you have made extraordinary efforts to vaccinate both your campus communities and the general public, administering more than 92,000 vaccinations at clinics across the state. We will continue to offer free, life-saving vaccines to students, faculty, and staff on campus, and we will continue to encourage and incentivize every eligible person to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Hans has consistently said only the North Carolina Commission for Public Health can mandate vaccines at the university level, and the UNC System office and chancellors at individual schools have for months been citing that rule as an impediment to a vaccine mandate. Hans’s legal analysis, however, has been questioned by some, who cite among other things, the fact that UNC schools required a measles booster during a 1989 outbreak of that disease.
The Commission for Public Health is a 13-member body. Under state law, four members are elected by the North Carolina Medical Society and nine are appointed by the governor. In the highly politicized environment around vaccine and masking mandates, however, the commission has not yet taken any public action on a mandate and is not scheduled to meet again until October 15.
The members of the UNC Board of Governors are political appointees. The board is heavily conservative, with just one registered Democrat currently on the board. But the issue of mandating or even encouraging vaccination is divisive even within GOP circles.
In a video that made the rounds online last month, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson told a crowd at a conservative event it is not the job of elected officials to encourage people to take a vaccine. Robinson, a Republican, said those doing so should be voted out of office.
The most powerful elected GOP leaders in the state—N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore- (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham)—are among the prominent Republicans in North Carolina who have encouraged vaccination as the best method of beating COVID-19.
The number of students, faculty and staff who are actually vaccinated at each UNC system campus is not clear. UNC schools are asking students, faculty and staff to attest to their vaccination status. But students are not required to provide actual evidence of their vaccination.
As of Monday, N.C. State said 73 percent of community members — 32,863 people, including students, staff and faculty—had either uploaded vaccine records to the school’s HealthyPack portal or been fully vaccinated on campus.
As of Wednesday, the school’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 510 positive cases on campus since August 1, determined either through on-campus testing or self reporting. Of those cases, 422 are students and 88 employees.
The UNC Board of Governors will hold committee meetings Wednesday and a full board meeting on Thursday. They are expected to discuss the ongoing question of vaccination at campuses.
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