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California Public Universities Announce A Vaccine Requirement. It’s Complicated

Langsdorf Hall, a light colored building with 7 floors at its highest, is on the Cal State Fullerton campus.
Langsdorf Hall at Cal State Fullerton.
(Chava Sanchez
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Leaders of California’s massive public university systems announced on Thursday that students and employees will need a COVID-19 vaccine to return to campus in the fall.

“Receiving a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19 is a key step people can take to protect themselves, their friends and family, and our campus communities while helping bring the pandemic to an end,” said UC President Michael Drake in a written statement sent out jointly with a statement by CSU chancellor Joseph Castro.

The UC and Cal State vaccination policies have a big condition: the requirement will be enforced after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves at least one vaccine.

None of the three vaccines have FDA approval yet, and there’s no set date for that to happen.

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The university systems said students planning to return to campus in the fall should tell their universities whether they’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine. Additionally, campuses will help people who haven’t been vaccinated find a place to get the shot.

Together, CSU and UC enroll and employ more than one million students and employees across 33 major university campuses. The universities said the announcement is a big deal. So far, Cal State universities had taken a by-campus approach to vaccinations, which did not sit well with all campus employees.

“(T)his is the most comprehensive and consequential university plan for COVID-19 vaccines in the country,” said CSU Chancellor Castro.

But not everyone agreed on the intention of the announcement.

“I would suggest that we're not going to see any definitive FDA approvals before...a year and a half, if not more than that,” said Dr. Edward Jones-Lopez, an infectious disease specialist at the private University of Southern California’s school of medicine. “There's some ulterior motive to an announcement like this.”

A USC spokesman said that university's vaccination policy for the fall is “still in development.”

There is a consensus among infectious disease experts that increasing the rate of vaccinated people will lead to the pandemic’s demise.

UC did not respond to a request to answer whether the announcement had more to do with encouraging vaccination than creating a requirement that would be in place in the fall.

“We are announcing our intention now in the event that approval does indeed come before the start of the fall term so that students and employees have time to receive a vaccination,” said CSU Chancellor’s office spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp in an email.

The announcement is important, Jones-Lopez said, whether or not the universities establish the requirement this fall. The pandemic is likely to create a situation in the near future in which access to closed spaces, and even some open spaces, will depend on whether a person is vaccinated against COVID-19 or not.

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“It's increasingly unlikely that they will be allowed to be open to people who are refusing vaccinations,” Jones-Lopez said.