Pitt looking at incentives to help collect student vaccine status


The University is carefully weighing its options when it comes to making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory on campus, but University leaders offered some insight into what factors into the decision.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher told Senate Council members on May 20, that “everything is on the table, and we’re looking at everything” over the summer to make the final decision.

The University will be in a similar position to where it was last year, he said, as it tries to remain flexible with the evolving conditions surrounding the pandemic and vaccinations.

The vaccine, however, is “changing things” Gallagher added.  

“They’re safe, and they’re having a very positive effect,” Gallagher said. “The questions really are for a population, let’s say our university community, that’s going to share campuses and activities, how do you manage that and protect everyone when you have sort of two populations: one vaccinated and one unvaccinated?”

Gallagher reiterated that this conundrum goes away if everyone gets a vaccine. In the meantime, the University will continue to push for as many people to have the vaccine as possible.

The chancellor said that the University may, at some point, need to know the vaccination status of members of the Pitt community as health guidance continues to evolve. A person’s vaccination status could impact testing and quarantine requirements.

The University’s health teams are still in the early process of figuring out the best strategy to gather this information, he said. 

“One of the things that we will be focused on is incentive programs and other things to try to get that information,” Gallagher said. “Depending on the vaccination rates across the population that will affect our planning for the fall. And it may also matter whether you’re vaccinated or not to see what requirements would apply to you in the fall.”

Senate Council members voted to pass a resolution that encourages the University to require vaccinations for people planning to return to campus.

Gallagher declined to speak in detail about the potential for mandates but said he appreciated the resolution and it would serve as input for the final decision – which would be complex.

So far, more than 340 universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Boston College and Notre Dame, have recently mandated that students and employees need to be vaccinated before they return to their campuses. 

Similar resolutions have been passed at Penn State and Temple universities, Senate Council President Chris Bonneau added, with strong support from their faculty.

During the May 12 Faculty Assembly meeting, Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer, and John Williams, the head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, spoke about the vaccine and the current legal landscape when it comes to making the vaccinations mandatory.

The main issues at hand are the potential implementation and enforcement of the mandates. Washington said mandating, in general, can be a difficult, complicated process. The schools that have already decided to implement similar vaccination resolutions are still working out the details.

“How they’re implementing this varies almost as widely as how many colleges there are,” Washington said. “And some of them haven’t even figured it out. I’ve talked to more general councils in the past couple of weeks than I want to at universities, and they’re still kind of figuring out how they’re going to enforce or implement these mandates and requirements as they go.”

Some schools have only required students who live in University housing to have vaccinations, while others also require faculty and staff. Additionally, federal and state legislation can play a strong role in these decisions.

“We’re watching very carefully what our legislature is going to say about whether or not you can take a personnel action against someone who doesn’t get vaccinated,” Washington said. 

The use of Flex@Pitt during the past school year reduced potential issues related to mandates since a majority of the Pitt community was not on campus. But now that it will no longer be used, some of the tools the system offered will no longer be available, Washington said.

The University is grappling with the question of how to provide education and opportunities to people who won’t get vaccinated, she added. And when it comes to implementation, there are different rules for different groups of people that the University will also have to determine.

Privacy can be another potential issue that may pop up as the University considers how to gather and maintain data on the vaccination status of members of the Pitt community.

The University has databases that track vaccinations for students and has a more limited system for tracking faculty and staff in certain research fields that require a vaccination, Washington said, but these systems would need to expand.

“But who could know about that, and who could ask questions about individuals would be very limited, which, again, makes enforcement a little uneven in places …” Washington said. “How people would tell us and what we could require them to tell us is a different thing that we’re kind of working through.”

Additionally, since the vaccines are still under emergency use authorizations, if a person gets vaccinated and something goes wrong, they could sue the University, she added.

As for people who have medical reasons for not taking the vaccine, the Americans with Disabilities Act process can be used for guidelines.

It’s also unclear how the University would handle international students who still cannot return to the University or have taken vaccines out of the country, but the University is working through solutions, Washington said.

CDC guidance would play a critical role in these decisions, Williams said.

“I think we will make every effort we can to provide access to education for those international students who are not able to get back,” Washington said. “I think the question about what we do with them vaccine-wise, whether or not they have vaccines that we think are ‘less effective’ or whatever, I think we’re still working through that.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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