Indiana passed the dubious milestone of 1 million-plus COVID-19 cases Monday. The state continues to climb in per-capita deaths from the coronavirus, now tied with Nevada for the 15th highest rate. Fewer than half of Indiana residents are fully vaccinated – far from the herd immunity figure health experts say is needed to put the pandemic to rest.
Against that backdrop, Purdue University Fort Wayne officials announced last week they won't join the 1,082 U.S. colleges and universities requiring students and employees to be vaccinated. All Indiana University campuses, including students enrolled in its Fort Wayne programs, require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The University of Notre Dame, IUPUI, Wabash College and DePauw University also require the vaccine.
“After careful due diligence and consideration – and with significant input from the campus community – our leadership team has reached the unanimous decision that implementation of a vaccine mandate for the spring semester is simply not feasible,” according to a letter signed by Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer and other top officials.
How it is not feasible, in light of the experience of 1,000-plus other universities, is not explained. The letter cites recommendations of the PFW Ready Committee, a group of mostly administrative employees tapped to establish safety protocols and operations regarding the pandemic, along with results of separate student and employee surveys. Almost 60% of faculty and staff supported a mandate; 73% of students opposed the mandate, citing “a violation of personal choice/personal rights/personal health” as a primary reason.
PFW requires students to be immunized for diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and meningitis. If they fail to comply, they can be prohibited from registering for classes.
If the overall community's vaccination rate and current COVID-19 cases were a consideration, it wasn't noted as a factor in the decision. That's unfortunate, because Allen County would benefit from its higher education community (yes, that includes the University of Saint Francis, Indiana Tech and Ivy Tech) setting a good example and contributing to a higher vaccination rate.
Allen County, with just 48% of residents fully vaccinated, lags the state average. It also lags Monroe County, home of IU-Bloomington, with a 54% vaccination rate; and Tippecanoe County, home of the Purdue-West Lafayette campus, at 52%. Purdue's flagship campus doesn't require a COVID vaccine, but the university launched an impressive vaccine incentive program long before the fall semester began.
Both of those counties have a current positivity rate well below Allen County's 9.13%. Monroe County is at 3.84%, the lowest positivity rate in the state. The flagship campuses are clearly helping their communities stop the spread.
One positive note in the PFW chancellor's announcement is a reference to the university's “very effective” mitigation efforts – “most notably the mask requirement that has been in effect during most of the pandemic.”
“We have had no outbreaks of the virus on campus, and campus infection rates continue to decline,” according to the letter.
That's terrific news. It should ensure that PFW's mask order remains in effect even after its next expiration date of Nov. 28. Unvaccinated students returning home to counties with even higher COVID-19 numbers risk carrying the virus back to campus after break. Absent a commitment to help bolster the vaccine rate in Allen County, a continuing campus mask order is the best we can hope for.