The University of St. Thomas launched its "All for the Common Good" brand several years ago, reflecting a goal for its students "to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully" for the greater community.
The well-known St. Paul school, the state's largest private university with nearly 10,000 students, shouldn't miss a new opportunity to turn those lofty principles into action. St. Thomas, along with all of Minnesota's other public and private higher education institutions, should require the COVID-19 vaccination for returning students this fall, with limited exemptions.
Commendably, two Minnesota colleges — Macalester and Carleton — already have announced this policy. It's disappointing that the state's flagship academic institution, the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, which has a spring 2021 enrollment of nearly 48,000, has not yet done so. Immunization doesn't just protect those who get the injection. Viral spread is stifled when enough people are vaccinated. Individual immunizations in turn protect family, friends and the community. The shots are safe and can finally end this historic pandemic.
An estimated 70% to 90% vaccination rates is needed to achieve "herd immunity." As of Friday, about 61% of eligible Minnesotans had at least one vaccine dose. There's still a long way to go. Requiring student vaccinations would help Minnesota reach this public health milestone.
While the Star Tribune Editorial Board does not support a broad COVID-19 vaccination mandate for the public, a targeted one makes sense for students studying or living on a campus.
Crowded living arrangements, such as dorms or military barracks, are historically where "epidemics take off," said Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, a University of Minnesota infectious disease specialist who endorses requiring vaccinations for college students. The virus remains far from vanquished, and crowded lecture halls, cafeterias, social gatherings and trips home are other unique aspects of student life that could still fuel viral spread.
Data from the pandemic illustrate Drekonja's concerns. According to the New York Times COVID tracker, "More than 240,000 cases have been linked to American colleges and universities since Jan. 1, and more than 660,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic."
It's important to note that certain vaccinations are already mandated for college students. State law requires "appropriate immunization against measles, rubella, and mumps after having attained the age of 12 months, and against diphtheria and tetanus within ten years of first registration at the institution." There are exemptions for medical reasons as well as for "conscientiously held beliefs," though a signed statement from a physician is required for the first and a notarized statement for the second.
Some pushback against requiring the COVID vaccine involves the complexity of "operationalizing it" in time for classes resuming this fall or athletes returning even sooner than that. But the requirement for measles and other diseases provides a longstanding blueprint. Adding one more vaccination should be doable. There have also been questions about whether the state's public universities have the authority to require COVID vaccination without legislative action. The University of Minnesota has determined it can make its own decision, a spokesman told an editorial writer. It should do so, and set an important example to follow in Minnesota.
Nationwide, 348 campuses have put varying COVID shot requirements in place, according to a running tally kept by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Included are most Ivy League institutions, as well as the sprawling University of California and the California State University systems.
There should be far more than two Minnesota colleges on the Chronicle's COVID vaccination-required list. Students need time to get immunized and let their immune systems rev up before their return to campuses this fall. It's time for Minnesota's higher ed leaders to lead on this.