Are area colleges requiring COVID vaccine boosters for spring? Safety plans issued
Winter break is here for college students across the Hudson Valley.
To come back for the spring, some of them, as well as some staff, will have to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster. Many others will need to undergo testing for the potentially deadly illness before they can step back on campus.
As the omicron strain continues to spread at a rate not seen in any other variant, it's possible schools may update guidance before in-person classes begin for the spring in late January.
Vassar College earlier this month announced it is requiring students to receive a booster. Marist College joined them in that measure Wednesday. Bard College says it has already administered hundreds of boosters to students, and other schools are giving students the choice of receiving a booster or undergoing COVID testing.
Colleges in the region individually reported vaccination rates above 95 amongst students and above 80% for staff. But with COVID cases on the rise, and with studies showing the omicron strain may infect those who have not received a booster far more easily than previous variants, many say the booster or COVID testing is necessary.
Most area schools saw a jump in cases in the final weeks of the fall semester. Vassar, which said more than 99% of students were vaccinated, had a high of 64 active cases on campus between students and staff on Dec. 14. That's despite recording 164 cases for the entire semester.
As of Monday, SUNY New Paltz reported 37 active cases among students and staff and 327 for the semester; Marist had 27 and 167 for the semester.
Bard and Mount Saint Mary got through the semester relatively unscathed, with Bard recording 63 total cases and Mount Saint Mary 47.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended booster doses for anyone over the age of 18 six months after completing a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine series, or two months after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson recipe.
In a letter to the Vassar community, President Elizabeth Bradley said requiring boosters is necessary to provide a safe learning environment. Vassar students and staff are required to receive their booster by Jan. 17. Those who are ineligible to receive the booster by then will have 30 days after becoming eligible to fulfill the requirement.
"The health and safety of everyone on campus is paramount, and we understand health to include not only the physical health, but also mental health and social well-being," Bradley said. "Additionally, we will apply all the learning we have had through the last four semesters of the pandemic to provide the best and safest on-campus experience possible."
Marist officials, in their own letter, announced all students and staff would need a booster by Jan. 31 13 days after the official start of the spring semester. Anyone not eligible by that date will need a booster within 30 days of becoming eligible. The school is also requiring a flu vaccine by Jan. 14.
Marist students with medical or religious exemptions will need to be tested upon return to campus on either Jan. 16 or 17, and they will need to continue mandatory surveillance testing they were required to in the fall.
Bard also issued a letter, stating it administered 900 vaccine boosters to the college community and plans to issue more to those who choose to do so. It was noted some students will not be eligible for the booster until after the beginning of the semester.
"One of the hallmarks of the college’s success in managing COVID has been our flexible planning, which enables us to be both prepared for and responsive to the evolving situation," the college wrote. "Please rest assured that the college’s COVID-19 Response Team is constantly reviewing our protocols and considering what if any changes must be made to help our community stay safe."
SUNY New Paltz is requiring all students and staff to either receive a booster by Jan. 8, or return to campus with proof that they either a negative PCR test between Jan. 12-19; a negative antigen test between Jan. 20-22; or a positive COVID-19 diagnosis on or after Oct. 25.
New Paltz Spokesperson Chrissie Williams said the college's requirements for reentry could be subject to change before campus reopens.
"We will watch the COVID-19 variant and make final determinations after the holidays and before students return, in consultation with State Deptartment of Health, local public health officials, and SUNY," she said. "All policies are subject to change; we will provide confirmation and additional details in January."
New Paltz noted its spring testing policy will be the same as in the fall, with any unvaccinated student or employee required to test every week while on campus, and 20% of the vaccinated population will be tested each week.
'A stressful time for all'
Mount Saint Mary College is not yet requiring booster shots for students and employees. Spokesperson Matthew Frey noted vaccinations are required to attend classes in-person, with medical and religious exemptions, and the college "may decide" to also mandate boosters "in the future if it is deemed to be in the best interest of our community's health and safety."
At Vassar, Bradley said the booster requirement is needed due to the presence of variants.
"I understand that this is a stressful time for us all. Getting your booster shot is crucial to the safety of our community and your well-being," Bradley said. "After enjoying a successful fall semester, this is an important step in helping ensure we have a healthy and safe campus for the spring semester."
Most area schools have also said they will adhere to CDC suggestions for other safety measures, such as mask use. While New York residents are under a state mandate to wear masks while in any indoor public space, spring semesters are scheduled to begin after the planned end to the mandate on Jan. 15. Still, most schools for months have said masks were required while indoors on campus after the CDC updated its guidance suggesting residents do so.
Complete information regarding each college's requirements will be posted on college websites before the start of the spring semester, representatives say.
Katelyn Cordero is the education reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal: email@example.com; Twitter: @KatelynCordero.