(Note: This story was updated Saturday with additional clarifying information from Georgia Southern University.)
Georgia Southern University President Dr. Kyle Marrero told Statesboro business and community leaders last week the university will not – or cannot – require COVID-19 vaccinations for students arriving for the fall semester.
And in an email Saturday from Georgia Southern, Marrero said the “university is awaiting guidance from the University System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Public Health on whether or not to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students attending fall semester.”
Speaking to Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce members and guests at an April 15 “power luncheon,” Marrero talked, among other things, about the three-campus university’s surprising resurgence in growth during the pandemic year. He also noted the university’s efforts to encourage its students and employees to be vaccinated, including providing the shots on campus.
“Now I’m proud to say that we are the deliverer of a vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, on our campuses,” Marrero said. “We have over 4,600 shots in arms to date through the rest of this week, and we will continue that for the rest of spring, through this summer, and for our incoming freshman class this fall to ensure that we have a vaccine environment so that we can move into normal.”
One week later, April 22, the total was up to 4,820 doses of the vaccine administered to employees and students on Georgia Southern’s campuses, according to an update obtained from GS Director of Communications Jennifer Wise. Georgia Southern enrolled 26,949 students at its Statesboro, Savannah and Hinesville campuses and online last fall, and Marrero forecast a “goal” of about 27,500 students for next fall semester, with classes starting Aug. 11.
Statesboro and Bulloch County saw their rates of COVID-19 infections surge to among the highest, at that time, in the nation soon after Georgia Southern resumed in-person classes last August. Early in his Chamber of Commerce remarks, Marrero acknowledged the university’s own fall 2020 spike in cases.
Later, when the university president provided time for questions, Statesboro City Manager Charles W. Penny asked if a COVID-19 vaccination will be mandatory for incoming fall 2021 first-year students.
"The current vaccination, as you know, is an emergency authorization, so a state entity cannot mandate a vaccine requirement for attendance or admission because of that status. So, no, it will not be required,” Marrero replied.
Marrero expanded on his remarks in an email from Georgia Southern to the Herald Saturday.
“As we have done from the beginning of the pandemic with all our public health guidelines, we will follow guidance on (the vaccine) issue from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the University System of Georgia,” he said.
At the Chamber meeting, Marrero said Georgia Southern would make the vaccine readily available.
“Now, Eagles' wings up! …,” he continued. “We’re using every bit to ensure we have availability of vaccine, encouragement, advocacy, everything we can do. So if the hesitancy that is out there continues, we’ll continue that for this summer and even in that early part of the fall semester, as long as we need to make sure vaccines are available.”
Practice vs. policy
His statement is in line with current University System of Georgia practice.
However, a policy of the Board of Regents of the University System, numbered 4.8.1, states: “During an epidemic or a threatened epidemic of any disease preventable by immunization at a University System of Georgia (USG) institution, and when an emergency has been declared by appropriate health authorities of this State, the President of the institution, in conjunction with the Chancellor and appropriate health authorities, may promulgate rules and regulations specifying diseases against which immunizations may be required.
“Any individual who cannot show proof of immunity or adequate immunization and refuses to be immunized shall be excluded from any USG institution or facility until valid evidence of immunization against the disease is presented or the epidemic or threat no longer constitutes a significant public health danger,” that policy concludes.
In fact, the University System of Georgia mandates that new students submit proof of immunity to measles, mumps, and rubella, chicken pox, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and hepatitis B, with exemptions available for religious and medical reasons. But the longer-used vaccines for these diseases have been approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration under its regular procedures, not an emergency use authorization like those for the COVID-19 vaccines.
In an April 12 story, “U.S. colleges divided over requiring student vaccinations,” the Associated Press reported that “legal scholars say the COVID-19 vaccines’ emergency use status moves the issue to a legal gray area that’s likely to be challenged in court.” Most or all of the universities and colleges cited in that story as mandating proof of coronavirus vaccination are private, not public institutions.
In another story, Tuesday, April 20, the Associated Press reported that five Atlanta-area schools – Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, the Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College – announced that they will require all students be vaccinated by this fall. The report noted that they are among the first colleges and universities in the South to do so.
However, all five are private institutions and not part of the University System of Georgia.