Protesters hold signs at an anti-vaccine protest on March 9, 2022, next to Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. The event was in response to two students suing Santa Clara University over its COVID-19 vaccine booster shot requirement.

Protesters hold signs at an anti-vaccine protest on March 9, 2022, next to Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. The event was in response to two students suing Santa Clara University over its COVID-19 vaccine booster shot requirement. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — College COVID-19 vaccine requirements are facing renewed scrutiny now that California has walked back plans to mandate the shots in K-12 schools and the state and federal governments are ending their pandemic states of emergency.

The University of California recently softened its vaccine booster requirement. But immunization mandates continue at public and private campuses across the country, prompting debate as to whether they're still worth the trouble. Students say that, in some cases, verification procedures tripped up class registration.

Dr. Arthur Reingold, an epidemiology professor at UC-Berkeley, notes that UC also requires immunizations for measles and chickenpox, and people still are dying from COVID at rates that exceed those for influenza. As of Feb. 1, there were more than 400 COVID deaths a day across the U.S.

"The argument in favor of mandatory vaccination for COVID is no different than the argument for mandatory vaccination for flu, measles and meningitis," Reingold said. "For a 20-year-old college student, how likely are they to die? The risk is very low. But it's not zero. The vaccines are safe, so the argument of continuing to mandate vaccination fits very well with the argument for the other vaccines we continue to require."

But Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC-Irvine, said the mandates are harder to justify for vaccines that don't stop spread of the virus, especially for young healthy college students at low risk from COVID-19, which mostly afflicts the elderly.

"We know people who are vaccinated can still spread it," Noymer said. "Carrots are better than sticks. There are unintended consequences when people are too draconian, telling a student you can't register for classes if you're not vaccinated."

Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021 said California would be the first state to mandate COVID-19 vaccines to attend K-12 schools starting the following academic year. But a bill to accomplish that failed, and the California Department of Public health put the mandate off another year. Then, last week the department conceded the mandate was no longer being considered.

Nationally, many colleges and universities have no COVID vaccine requirement, but they remain prevalent in states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, said Jessica R. Barsotti, whose Newport Beach law firm is fighting them in court. A parent group called No College Mandates has a spreadsheet to track the status of mandates at colleges across the country.

It's unclear how many employees and students have been blocked from campus because they were not vaccinated for COVID. College and university officials indicate the numbers are small, though the policies may lead students to withdraw or choose a different school.

University of California campuses require students to get primary vaccination against COVID-19 in order to be on campus, with medical or religious exemptions. But UC in December softened its booster requirement by allowing an opt-out, the same as for annual flu shots.

UC said in its policy revision that the "combination of primary series, earlier boosters, and naturally occurring immunity provides a large majority of the university community with adequate protection to reduce the public health risk faced during earlier stages of the pandemic." UC added that it will continue to "evaluate the need for adjustments to the COVID-19 vaccination program."

California State Universities require both primary COVID-19 vaccination and recommended booster shots, with medical and religious exemptions. But Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the CSU chancellor's office, said that "we are in the process of reviewing the policy to ensure that it aligns with future guidance."

At San Jose State, students had mixed responses when asked about the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Isaac Mello, 20, who's studying mechanical engineering, said that although he's had the shots and not had COVID, an error in submitting proof of vaccination kept him from getting into a class he wanted last fall. He said the policy no longer seems necessary now that mask requirements have ended.

"That kind of sucked," Mello said. "At this point, I don't think it should be required."

Lauryn Hall, 23, who's studying justice, had a similar verification hassle because she had COVID before getting her booster. She called the snag annoying but "not a big deal." She said she wouldn't be upset if the vaccine requirement ended but also said, "I don't think there's a problem with it."

Merilou Isse, 21, who was wearing a blue surgical mask, said that "overall it's a good safety precaution." Though she wouldn't be concerned if the policy ended because cases are going down, she also felt it's not a hassle and that "people are still getting COVID, so it's still fair to require it at this time."

California community colleges set their policies individually, but several indicated that their boards now are reconsidering their COVID vaccine requirements. Among them are Chabot-Las Positas Community College District and San Jose-Evergreen Community College District.

Private colleges including Santa Clara University and Stanford University also maintain vaccine mandates. Santa Clara University's policy was challenged last year in a lawsuit by Children's Health Defense on behalf of two students. A judge dismissed the case in November, and it is being appealed on behalf of one of the students, Harlow Glenn, who sued over the booster requirement after she had a bad reaction to the vaccine.

"Children's Health Defense California believes that the persistence of college mandates is unfair and unwarranted," said Barsotti, a lawyer for the group, "particularly in light of the fact that the disease barely affects this demographic."

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