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Health board orders COVID-19 vaccination for Nevada college students

Updated August 20, 2021 - 8:09 pm

Students at Nevada’s public colleges and universities would have to show proof of vaccination to sign up for classes next spring under an emergency regulation approved unanimously Friday by the State Board of Health.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said he was ready to sign the temporary rule “as soon as it gets to my desk” and did later in the day.

The regulation would affect students taking in-person classes on Nevada System of Higher Education campuses beginning in the spring 2022 semester. But proof of vaccination would be required as of Nov. 1 to enroll.

Exemptions would be considered for religious beliefs or a medical condition, it states.

The board approved the rule following three hours of public comments dominated by opponents of the mandate and with less than 15 minutes of discussion.

The emergency amendment to the Nevada Administrative Code will be effective for 120 days and would require a more rigorous public process to be made permanent if deemed necessary, said Julia Peek, deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

The vaccination requirement won’t impact students’ ability to start the fall semester, state officials stressed.

In a statement, NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose and Board of Regents Chairwoman Cathy McAdoo said the higher education system will “faithfully move forward with implementing the new guidelines approved at today’s meeting within the suggested time frame.”

Each NSHE school is working with local medical leaders and health districts to regularly host free COVID-19 vaccination clinics on campus “as capacity allows” during fall semester, they said.

“In the meantime, the current mask mandate remains in place as an additional form of protection for our community,” Rose and McAdoo said.

More than 400 people attended Friday’s meeting, which was conducted virtually.

Most commenters opposed the mandate, but some spoke in favor.

Some foes made the misleading argument that the “experimental vaccine” doesn’t provide immunity against COVID-19, while others noted correctly that those who are vaccinated can still contract and spread the disease. Many also argued that the mandate is not legal.

And some vowed that they or their children won’t enroll in NSHE schools or continue their education in the state if there’s a mandate.

Ariana Brockman, a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, asked why it’s necessary mandate a vaccine for COVID-19 when the disease has an extremely high survival rate.

She also bristled at board members, asking why they weren’t answering questions and were brushing them off as bearers of misinformation.

Jacob Bram said he believes it’s unreasonable and unethical to use a student’s education to coerce them into getting vaccinated.

Board member Dr. Trudy Larson, a member of Sisolak’s medical advisory team, responded that data presented to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearly proves the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

She said moving the vaccination requirement forward is the right public health reaction.

“This is a public health emergency still,” she noted.

Kent Ervin, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, also spoke in favor of a vaccination requirement, with exceptions for medical and religious reasons and for online-only enrollments.

“Please ignore the disinformation that seems to be spreading as fast as the virus,” he said.

Peek, the state public health official, also told the board that noted that mandating vaccinations for students is nothing new, adding that there’s already language in the state’s administrative code that students shall not attend university without proof of immunity from certain communicable diseases.

The COVID-19 vaccination requirement would apply to all NSHE institutions, not just universities, Peek said.

Sisolak’s medical advisory team had recommended NSHE students should be fully vaccinated for the spring 2022 semester.

The state’s colleges and universities have held most classes remotely since March 2020, but plan to offer more in-person classes during fall semester, which begins this month.

In May, NSHE — which oversees eight campuses and more than 100,000 students — announced it was drafting plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students coming onto campuses for fall semester with some limited exemptions.

The higher education system said the requirement would be contingent on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifting the emergency use authorization for a vaccine — which hasn’t happened — plus approval from the NSHE Board of Regents and State Board of Health.

Earlier this month, though, the higher education system said the legal authority for a vaccine mandate for students falls under the State Board of Health.

Chancellor Rose said at Friday’s meeting that the topic of mandating COVID-19 vaccinations is a vital and incredibly challenging conversation, adding that everyone has been going through a “tremendously difficult time.”

The state this week began requiring its approximately 27,000 workers, including NSHE employees, to either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing weekly — an option that wouldn’t be available to students without an exemption.

During deliberations, State Board of Health chair Jon Pennell asked whether a weekly testing option was considered for students.

Caleb Cage from NSHE, who previously oversaw the state’s pandemic response, said the higher education system’s coronavirus task force considered it, but it wasn’t considered sufficient to protect students and employees.

Nationwide, about 741 public or private colleges or universities have decided to require COVID-19 vaccinations for some or all students or employees, according to a list maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some are contingent on the FDA lifting emergency use authorization, but others will take effect sooner.

The University of California and California State University systems are among those requiring students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to come onto campuses this fall.

Many NSHE faculty members and some students called for a similar action in time for fall classes during discussion of a possible vaccination mandate.

In May, the private Touro University Nevada in Henderson announced it would require students and employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before coming to campuses starting June 1. It also said it would consider medical or religious exemptions.

Byron Brooks, a NSHE regent, said the topic has turned into a politically and socially divisive issue.

Clearly, a strong majority of students are not in favor of a vaccine mandate, Brooks said. He also asked who would be liable for any adverse reactions that may happen.

Brooks asked state leaders to slow down “and reevaluate this entire agenda,” noting he can’t support a vaccine mandate knowing massive complications have occurred in some patients who have received the vaccine.

The decision must be made between a doctor and patient, he said.

College of Southern Nevada student body president Zachary Johnigan said the student government did a survey of students to ask whether they support a COVID-19 vaccination mandate. About 40 percent of more than 9,700 surveyed didn’t support it and 33 percent supported it a great deal.

Humans should have the right to choose what to do with their body and a vaccination requirement shouldn’t interfere with anyone’s ability to pursue higher education, Johnigan said.

Abe Lugo, student body vice president at UNLV, said that given the ongoing rising COVID-19 case numbers, the only way of combating the situation is with the vaccine.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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