International students overcome hurdles in accessing vaccines for WU mandate

| Staff Reporter
Masked individuals stand in line alongside a patterned blue wall in a well lit hallway. They hold up sheets of paper against the wall to write on them.HN Hoffmann | Student Life

Students fill out paperwork as they wait in line to get vaccinated at the vaccine clinic on the WUSM campus last April

Some international students have faced challenges accessing vaccines that comply with Washington University’s vaccine mandate as they return to campus for the 2021-2022 academic year.

The University approved all vaccines with World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Use Authorization to satisfy its vaccination requirement, but some international students had trouble accessing WHO-approved vaccines, others were worried the vaccine they received would not be approved by the WHO and a few even went ahead and got two doses of an WHO approved vaccine after receiving a different vaccine.

“There are many international students who have gotten all kinds of vaccines and there are some that we have been able to approve and others we haven’t,” Executive Director of Habif Health and Wellness Center Cheri LeBlanc said in an Aug. 23 COVID town hall. “I feel like we’ve talked to almost every international student that’s out there through the summer, making sure that we have made the right plan for them and to be sure that we are capturing the information accurately for everyone. And I will say it’s gone down to the wire.”

Tim Wu, a sophomore from China, had received two doses of the Sinopharm vaccine by mid-June. When he had received his first dose, Sinovac, the more widely available vaccine in China, was not yet approved by WHO, although it was approved soon after. Wu had worried that he would be unable to receive a WHO-approved vaccine.

“I was worried at some point, because, especially when Sinovac was not included into the WHO list, at that time, most of the vaccination stations gave Sinovac,” Wu said. “Only a few stations gave Beijing Sinopharm, so I actually went to three different places before getting vaccinated with Beijing Sinopharm.”

Though Wu was able to receive a WHO approved vaccine before his arrival to campus, other international students have been unable to be vaccinated until coming to campus, something LeBlanc said the University expected.

“We anticipated that some students would not be able to obtain a vaccine and had multiple communications from Habif and OISS (Office for International Students and Scholars) letting students know we would make vaccinations available upon their arrival and would work with them until they were fully vaccinated,” LeBlanc wrote in a statement to Student Life.

To aid international students facing these difficulties, the University provided on-campus vaccine clinics and recommendations for off-campus clinics for students arriving on campus from abroad.

“We had several COVID-19 vaccination clinics on campus corresponding to the dates most international students were arriving. Habif also provided students with multiple sites where vaccines were available for those international students who were arriving on other days,” LeBlanc wrote.

LeBlanc added that the University extended the deadline for international students to get fully vaccinated and will provide these students with bi-weekly testing until they are able to receive a vaccine.

Despite the challenges Wu faced accessing a WHO approved vaccine, he found University communication about the vaccine mandate very clear.

“I think WashU’s policy was quite transparent, so it just released all the policies about vaccination in March or April so that we can have a clear view about which vaccines that are approved and which vaccines that are not approved, and clearly WashU is very inclusive. It accepts all WHO certified vaccines,” Wu said.

Other international students have chosen to get re-vaccinated upon arrival in the United States, due to the significantly higher efficacy rates of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Freshman Leonard Zhao received two doses of Sinovac in China in March and then received two doses of Pfizer in the U.S. in August.

“I tested my antibody value, and the value is very low, so, I thought I could get Pfizer in the U.S.,” Zhao said. “I mean I [would have] to get Pfizer in the U.S. in the future, so I think, why not just get it in New York, so I got [a dose of] Pfizer in a CVS pharmacy, and then also the CVS Pharmacy here on Delmar.”

When getting his first dose of Pfizer, Zhao did not reveal to the employees at CVS that he had already received two doses of Sinovac in China.

“I heard someone say that if you’re going to get vaccinated from the University on campus, you should not tell them you got vaccinated in China, because they might not give you a vaccination because you have already vaccinated,” Zhao said. “When I got the vaccine in CVS, I was saying, ‘I’m getting the first dose of Pfizer,’ so I didn’t even mention I got vaccines in China.”

LeBlanc clarified the University’s policy towards students receiving four doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

“There were a number of students from China who received one dose of Sinopharm and one dose of Sinovac vaccines,” LeBlanc wrote. “Which vaccine they received was not negotiable to the student. Since this combination was not WHO-authorized, we are in the process of re-vaccinating them with an FDA-approved vaccine.”

However, the University does not encourage international students to receive four doses of COVID-19 vaccines if they were fully vaccinated in China with two doses of either Sinovac or Sinopharm.

“For those who received two doses of either Sinopharm or Sinovac, which is WHO-authorized, we did not require further vaccination,” LeBlanc wrote.

Freshman Mona Li has also considered getting two doses of an FDA-approved vaccine after getting fully vaccinated in China, but she would first want more information from Habif about the safety of receiving four doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Like Wu, Li received the Sinovac vaccine and worried at first that it would not be approved by the WHO before school began. However, Li trusted the University to instate mandates with which international students could reasonably comply.

“I believed that they [were] going to approve us eventually, because all of my friends are coming to the U.S. to study,” Li said. “The government or the school is going to eventually figure out a way for us to come here, so we’ve got to approve Chinese vaccines.”

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