The University of New Mexico revealed a draft proposal on May 3 that would require COVID-19 vaccinations for most students, staff and faculty in order to attend the University in person for the coming fall semester, drawing both praise and scrutiny from UNM community members.
The short proposal has not received a final ruling from the University administration. Instead, UNM’s “Bring Back the Pack” website has installed a feedback button alongside the link to the proposal, encouraging those who read it to provide their thoughts.
This proposition is not the first of its kind; according to CNBC, over 30 colleges and universities throughout the nation have already committed to similar proposals to require vaccinations for their students and faculty.
“This is the best way to ensure the safety of people who are immunodeficient at UNM,” Emerald Goranson, a senior at UNM, wrote to the Lobo. “Throughout grade school vaccines are also required to attend school unless you’re medically or religiously exempt. We should not be surprised that this is a step the University is willing to take and it is a public health centered decision.”
But others at the University worry about what the mandate would require of those who request exemptions from the vaccine mandate under religious or disability-related concerns.
“From what I understand of the proposal, if I were to submit the religious exemption paperwork, every time I set foot on campus I would be forcibly quarantined and forcibly tested,” Ph.D. student Aleja Allen wrote to the Lobo.
Indeed, the “Bring Back the Pack” website mentions in the frequency asked questions (FAQs) section that “additional safety measures, such as quarantine upon initial arrival to campus and surveillance testing, may be deemed necessary” by health authorities, and says that those who are exempted would be “informed of any additional requirements” should the mandate go into effect.
What steps will actually be taken or what those safety measures may look like remain to be seen, and the University is considering the feedback generated from the input of students, staff and faculty in regard to how they would implement such measures, according to Cinnamon Blair, UNM’s chief marketing and communication director.
“Right now we’re looking to get that information in the feedback, but no decisions have been made, and that’s why the FAQs were put out there so people could start thinking about the things that could be discussed,” Blair said.
Blair said the accommodations would either go through the Office of Compliance, Ethics & Equal Opportunity (CEEO) or the Accessibility Resource Center (ARC), depending on what the accommodation is. CEEO, formerly known as the Office of Equal Opportunity before its combination with the Compliance Office, was not involved in the creation of the proposed policy, according to Interim Director of Equal Opportunity Heather Jaramillo. Still, accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as religious accommodations are “evaluated on a case-by-case basis and are tailored to the specific situation of the person requesting the accommodation and the department that is implementing the accommodation,” Jaramillo said in an email to the Lobo.
“Our role in all accommodations is to ensure that a person has equitable access to continue their professional or academic work, to craft an accommodation that is reasonable under the law and to ensure that the accommodation does not place an undue hardship or burden on the operations of the University,” Jaramillo said.
Allen, as well as others on social media, raised concerns about the fact that all coronavirus vaccines are currently available under an emergency use authorization, which “allow(s) the use of unapproved medical products, or unapproved uses of approved medical products in an emergency,” according to the FDA. However, UNM’s proposal clarifies that it would delay the enforcement of a vaccine requirement until the FDA approves at least one of the vaccines for regular use.
Although some nations, including some Canadian provinces, are pausing AstraZenica’s vaccine following instances of rare blood clots, similar to the blood clots reported in some recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the three vaccines approved for emergency use by the FDA — namely, vaccines made by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna — have passed rigorous safety and efficacy tests and independent reviews. The approved vaccines are widely regarded as safe and effective by the CDC, FDA and public health experts, and continue to be monitored for adverse effects.
Some UNM students, including Allen, have also raised legal questions about privacy and bodily autonomy.
But according to Jennifer Piatt, a senior attorney at the Network for Public Health Law's western region office, the precedent for those cases revolves more around the “fundamental right” to privacy addressed in cases such as Cruzan v. District, which established a patient’s right to refuse medical treatment, and Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a ban on the use of contraceptives by married couples — precedent that does not necessarily apply to vaccine mandates.
“In those cases, those are fundamental freedoms that are at stake, like the right to privacy or the right to bodily autonomy regarding medical decision-making,” Piatt said. “But when you’re talking about university vaccine mandates, the right at issue is not whether I am compelled to get a vaccine … you’re talking about a situation where students are facing a choice. It might be a difficult choice, but it’s a choice; to get vaccinated or (not) come to campus.”
Mandates are “much more constitutionally supportable” as opposed to forced or “compulsory” vaccinations, Piatt said, because they allow potential recipients of the vaccine a choice to opt-out — even if that choice may be a complicated one, such as weighing vaccination against a job or a post-secondary education. Other Supreme Court cases, according to Piatt, also provide precedent for a state’s implementation of vaccine mandates, such as Jacobson v. Massachusetts, and for exclusion of those unvaccinated from schools, such as Zucht v. King.
The proposal comes in tandem with a new initiative, dubbed “The Pack is Back,” to implement the planned return to in-person operations for the upcoming fall semester. The initiative has already repealed travel restrictions and will end the University’s hiring suspension starting July 1. July will also bring about the staff discussion of when to return to on-site work.
For UNM student Rosa Villagrana, the vaccine mandate is a catalyst for returning to normal college life. Villagrana said she supports the vaccine mandate as a way to return to in-person learning and added that the experience of online classes was more difficult for her compared to in-person lectures.
Yet for Allen, who had been planning to come to campus in person for the fall semester prior to the proposed mandate and who said she was unafraid of the coronavirus, the vaccine mandate is a step too far. Allen said UNM needs to "give us the right to make our own choices."
“This is going to hurt UNM,” Allen said. “I will withdraw if this goes forward."
Liam DeBonis is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDebonis