When the University of New Mexico decided to forgo a COVID-19 vaccine requirement and instead encourage a 100% vaccination rate goal for the upcoming semester, controversy erupted through the student body and students are still deciding whether or not they feel safe with the administration’s decisions.
In May, the University drafted a vaccine mandate policy that would have required most students, staff and faculty to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but has since abandoned the idea since the vaccine is still classified under Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA.
“UNM took, so far, really good precautions to keep its staff, faculty and student body safe so I felt like I kind of had a basic level of trust with the administration and when I saw the draft vaccine policy in May, I was very pleased by that; I thought it was a good policy,” PhD student Austin Miller said.
However, not all students agreed with this proposed policy and senior Alex Hiett said he would have even joined a new religion to avoid being vaccinated to keep his “body autonomy;” medical and religious exemptions would have been the main exceptions to the vaccine policy. But since the policy didn’t go through, Hiett breathed a sigh of relief.
However, for Miller, this abandonment of the policy meant a loss of trust with the administration and the University and the feeling that “we were just giving up at the last minute.”
“Truthfully (the lack of a vaccine policy) deteriorated the trust that I previously had in the administration to keep the student body safe but also to keep faculty and staff safe,” Miller said. “I just felt that it really just backtracked everything the administration did and at this point I really don’t have faith that the administration has our best interests in mind and actually wants to keep us safe.”
The American Medical Association reported that marginalized communities have suffered more severely during the pandemic, and Miller mentioned UNM’s Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) status — which means at least 25% of full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic — and said UNM has an extremely diverse population that will be negatively affected.
“I’m terrified about returning to the classroom … How are we to know who can and cannot wear (masks)?” a student said via direct message on Twitter, who requested to remain anonymous over fear of University backlash. “Do we have to keep a list of unvaccinated students? Can I even ask for proof? This will change the way I teach this semester.”
In accordance with CDC and state health guidelines, individuals that are not fully vaccinated must wear a mask in public settings, including within the premises of the University.
“If someone hasn’t had the vaccine but they don’t want to wear a mask, they might be pressured or just told that they’re supposed to wear a mask … I know it’s kind of a controversial take these days but I think that people should be able to make their own decisions about their body,” Hiett said.
Hiett said if teachers do start asking students if they are vaccinated, that it will be “discriminatory.” Hiett claims he gets less oxygen to his brain while wearing a mask, which would impact his schoolwork.
According to the CDC, a wide range of individuals — including healthy hospital workers, older adults and adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — had no change in oxygen or carbon dioxide levels while wearing cloth or surgical masks in studies that were done. While there have been reports of more difficulty in breathing or respiratory discomfort, studies show that wearing a mask is physically safe and protects individuals from “infectious droplets” in the air.
Hiett quit his job at the University when the state started mandating masks in public places because he doesn’t “really like telling people what they should do with their own body.” Hiett brought up that some individuals can be negatively impacted by wearing a mask, such as those with specific preexisting lung diseases, and that they shouldn’t have to wear masks.
“People in situations like that, if they’re forced to wear a mask, that's going to make their health worse … In my eyes, it’s just the wrong thing to do to walk up to someone like that and say, ‘You’ve got to do this thing to your body,’” Hiett said.
In contrast, NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy said people with predisposed lung diseases actually have more reason to wear masks because they are more at-risk, but could wear looser masks or face shields instead, or talk to their doctor about alternatives. In addition, the CDC has said that vaccines are not only effective against the COVID-19 virus but are also “a critical prevention measure to help end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The abrupt transition to a virtual education in March 2020 gave Miller, along with others, one of the worst semesters he’s ever had in terms of mental health. Hiett also said that the online education they were forced to endure didn’t feel like a “real semester” and that he just wants to go back in person.
Yet, Miller fears the University will be forced to return to a virtual environment because of these policy decisions. According to the New York Times, students typically learn less efficiently in a virtual environment than an in-person environment depending on the course.
“It just seemed really irresponsible to announce this (vaccine policy) without knowing what the fall semester is going to look like because, as we found out, things can change in a matter of weeks,” Miller said.
Whether classes are in person or virtual, Hiett said that there is a certain level of inequality for students who have views on the pandemic that don’t line up with professors’ perspectives, such as the differences between maskers and anti-maskers.
“If they ask you a question that you don’t feel that your perspective may be well received on, you may be less inclined to share it with a teacher,” Hiett said.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved into a partisan issue and continues to divide many people based on their political views.
“I think the issue with the vaccine policy is that it shifts the responsibility to protect everyone to the individual, and that’s not always going to happen,” Miller said. “And so I think without some type of policy that covers the whole university, it’s going to vary by department basis.”
Megan Gleason is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @fabflutist2716