Staff Editorial: Mandate the booster

Over three weeks into 2022 and nearly two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom classes were an unwelcome sight for students yearning for a return to normalcy. But two weeks of online classes were a small concession to make for the health and safety of the Washington University community, especially amidst the surge of the omicron variant. 

The decision to transition classes online for the first two weeks implies the University’s commitment to COVID-19 safety, and it stands to reason that if further steps could be taken to ensure that safety, the University would take action. However, WashU leadership has proven otherwise in their decision not to mandate a booster for students, faculty and staff returning to campus. 

University leadership stated in their plans for the spring semester that while “All students, faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to receive a COVID-19 booster shot if they are eligible to receive one,” they “are not requiring the booster at this time, but may do so in the future.” The decision is a striking departure from their vaccination policy announced in spring 2021 as well as the standard set by nearly all other major private universities in the country, who have mandated the booster for those returning to campus. 

The University provided somewhat of an explanation for their decision on their spring semester FAQ page, stating, “We have set the expectation that all of our students, faculty and staff who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 booster will get one. At this time, we are relying on the members of our community to take personal responsibility for taking this step and do not feel that we need to have a mandate at this time.” Executive director of the Habif Health and Wellness Center Cheri LeBlanc also stated that, due to the booster’s more limited suppression of transmission as compared to the first doses of the vaccine, “the need to respect individual and physical autonomy” outweighed the potential benefits of a fully boosted campus. 

It is well-known at this point that a booster shot is safe and very effective in reducing the spread and severity of COVID-19 and its variants. A booster reduces the chance of hospitalization by 90% compared to the unvaccinated, as well as reduces the likelihood of a trip to the emergency room by 82%. The CDC released its recommendation that all individuals 18 years or older get an additional dose nearly two months ago, and the FDA similarly has supported the use of boosters to protect against new variants. University leadership even praised the effectiveness of the booster in their “Updates to the Danforth Campus spring plan” message on Dec. 30: “Boosters reduce the risk of severe COVID illness, likely reduce the risk of acquiring COVID infection and prevent the need to quarantine after exposure to COVID.” Furthermore, in an effort to encourage getting boosted, the University will host vaccination clinics at the Athletic Complex starting Jan. 31. Every indication suggests that the University realizes the benefits of a fully boosted campus, making their decision not to mandate it all the more disconcerting. 

LeBlanc stated that the University expects around 70-75% of people to get the booster with a strong recommendation, while a mandate would garner a 95% booster rate. This disparity leaves nearly a quarter of the community — more than 1,500 students, along with faculty and staff — at a greater risk of transmission and severe COVID. Those at higher vulnerability, such as immuno-compromised individuals, may not feel safe on campus anymore. The potential for an outbreak that could threaten in-person activities — at this point, every student’s nightmare — also increases as a result of this decision. 

While the University has heavily emphasized the importance of some COVID-19 protocols such as entry testing for students, vaccination (booster shots included) remains far and away the most potent line of defense against COVID-19. The University agrees with this and asserts the need for students to constantly take precautions and respect COVID-19 protocols; in the same breath, however, they appeal to an indistinct right to personal autonomy as justification for not adequately protecting the community. After already requiring vaccination in the spring of 2021 and strongly recommending the booster, a mandate is a small, easy step with huge potential benefits for the WashU community.

This is not even an issue outside of WashU: nearly every other university we consider our peer has demonstrated their devotion to health and safety by mandating the booster (Vanderbilt is the only other top-20 school without a booster mandate, and unboosted students there are required to do regular testing). As a research institution with a prominent national reputation, WashU should be leading the charge for COVID-19 response. Instead, the University has made a harrowing statement about its values — a medically-oriented research institution that chooses to follow neither medicine nor research when making public health decisions.

The clear upside and utter lack of drawback for mandating a booster, especially as students return amidst the surge of omicron, makes University leadership’s decision even more confusing and begs the question: What unique issue separates WashU from its peers such that the University feels it must break from the standard and not mandate the booster? What information do we have that every other university is lacking? The decision is confounding at best and troubling at worst, and with silence on this and many other issues surrounding the student body’s return to campus, one is left to ponder the motivation behind this decision. With overwhelming evidence supporting the booster and other universities’ decision to mandate, the University’s resistance pits WashU squarely against progress, science and the safety of the community. 

The University has decided to deflect the responsibility of ensuring community safety onto its students, faculty and staff. This means that whatever pressure has been placed on the University to not require the booster, we as a student body must match. In that spirit, the opinion of this board will be clear and concise: Mandate the booster. 

Staff editorials reflect the opinion of the majority of our editorial board members. The editorial board operates independently of our newsroom and includes members of the senior staff. 

Editor-in-Chief: Matthew Friedman

Managing Editor: Isabella Neubauer

Senior Forum Editors: Reilly Brady and Jamila Dawkins

Senior Cadenza Editor: Gracie Hime

Senior Sports Editor: Grady Nance

Senior Scene Editor: Olivia Poolos

Senior Multimedia Editor: Jaden Satenstein

Junior Forum Editor: Serin Koh

Read more recent staff editorials:

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Staff Editorial: Once again, we need reform, not another public safety committee

Staff Editorial: Reflections on WashU social life

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