As Cases Rise and Restrictions are Extended, Bates Still Isn’t Requiring Vaccines for Faculty and Staff

Noah Forman, Digital Editor

In an email from Vice President of Campus Life Josh McIntosh on Jan. 14, it was announced that in-person dining in Commons would remain closed until at least Jan. 30. In-person classes resumed on Jan. 18.

During the Winter Baseline Testing Program, 55 COVID-19 cases, students and faculty combined, were recorded. The current total number of active cases, as of Jan. 20, are 58 student cases and 19 employee cases. For the arrival period and first two weeks of the winter semester, Bates used Abbott Laboratories rapid antigen tests for its twice-weekly testing program. The school will be transitioning to PCR pool testing starting the week of Jan. 24. 

As of Jan. 23, data made available by The New York Times details the recent and “extremely high” increase in cases. The Times’ data also points to an increase of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and deaths in Androscoggin County. Data also shows a high test positivity rate in the county (18%), which suggests that cases are potentially being undercounted. Local data shows a daily average of 71 cases and a 24% increase in cases over the last 14 days. Local hospitalizations have also increased by 76% over the last two weeks.

Campus Policy

While there will always be a mixed reaction to policy changes on campus, a survey conducted by The Student yielded a general sentiment that the school’s policies are failing to control the continued spread of COVID-19 on campus. A lack of both efficacy and enforcement of the school’s policies were concerns noted in the student survey. 

Every school in the NESCAC, with the exception of Bates, have had a campus wide vaccination mandate for students, staff and faculty in place since the return to campus in the fall. Recently, all NESCAC schools have updated their vaccination policy to require booster shots campuswide, again with the exception of Bates. 

When The Student reached out to the administration regarding the staff vaccination policy, the high staff vaccination rate and relatively low case numbers last semester was cited as defense for the current faculty vaccination policy.

Survey Says …

A COVID-19 Policy and Public Health Survey conducted last week by The Student received 77 student responses spread relatively evenly across all four class years. 

When asked how respondents would rate the school’s handling of the pandemic this academic year, 65% of students rated Bates at either a two out of five or a three out of five, five being the best possible rating. 

About 34% of students said they were unaware that Bates does not require staff and faculty to be vaccinated against COVID-19. When asked to respond to the statement, “There is nothing I would change about the COVID policies and restrictions on campus,” 88% percent of students said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed. 75% of students responded that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I would feel safer knowing all persons I interacted with on campus were vaccinated and boosted.”

90% of students believe that Bates should require all students, staff and faculty to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 5% of those students specifically responded that they believe all public health policies should be the same for both students and staff.

One anonymous student responded to the open section of the survey, stating, “If Bates makes me get vaccinated for my safety, why isn’t that logic applied to the staff, how are they any different?”

What We Know

In a recently published article from the World Economic Forum, researchers from the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard found that “an additional ‘booster’ dose of Moderna or Pfizer mRNA-based vaccine is needed to provide immunity against the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.” The study further detailed that the traditional regime of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccine does not neutralize the omicron variant and that individuals who received three doses of the mRNA vaccine had significant neutralization against the omicron variant opposed to individuals with two doses. 

An article published last month by the Associated Press highlighted boosters as the key to fighting the omicron variant. The article utilized multiple interviews with top university doctors. “Antibody levels naturally drop over time, and a booster revved them back up again, by 25 times for Pfizer’s extra shot and 37 times for Moderna’s. No one knows exactly what level is high enough — or how long it will be before antibody levels begin dropping again.”

The Associated Press article continued with a statement from Dr. S. Wesley Long of Houston Methodist Hospital’s Long: “The vaccines are going to protect you against severe disease, hospitalization and death. And that’s really the most important thing.” For those who have recently been infected with COVID-19, health experts still believe that anyone who has survived the virus should still get vaccinated because the combination of natural immunity and vaccines offers stronger protection.

A separate study suggests that a booster shot yields an 88% reduced risk of hospitalization two weeks after the third shot and a 63% reduced risk for symptomatic disease two weeks after the third shot. While the data from the latter study comes from investigations in the U.K., it still provides insight into the effectiveness of mRNA vaccines against the omicron variant. 

The College’s Views on Vaccination

On May 11, toward the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, Vice President for Campus Life Joshua McIntosh announced, “To help protect our campus and community against the virus, Bates will require that all students be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.” McIntosh further explained, “The very nature of our residential community makes this requirement necessary to protect the health of students and the broader Bates and local communities.” 

More recently, on Dec. 16, McIntosh issued another statement: “In the past few days, a number of colleges with very high vaccination rates (>95%) have experienced large outbreaks on their campuses, and some have sent students home, closed their campuses, and switched to remote learning. The omicron variant has been identified in a significant number of the cases, and the vast majority of positive cases have occurred in vaccinated individuals. Although we still have a great deal to learn about the omicron variant, the evidence to date indicates that this variant is highly transmissible. Based on the evidence so far, the booster appears to provide significant protection against both infection and serious illness in individuals who are exposed to COVID-19, whereas the two initial rounds of vaccine have reduced efficacy due to immunity waning over time.”