On August 5th, Chancellor Mone wrote, “The health, safety and well-being of our Panther community is my top priority as we head into the fall semester amid a rise in the Delta variant.” He has been admirably clear about UWM’s duty to protect the health and safety of the UWM community and neighboring populations.
The relentless spread of the Delta variant, and the associated rise in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths, make it all the more imperative that we marshal every possible tool to contain and limit viral spread. The FDA has now approved a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 and it is time to mandate vaccination for all students and staff on UWM campuses. Only vaccination can provide the strongest possible protection for our communities. But as our own Amanda Simanek—Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the Zilber School of Public Health—pointed out in a recent Atlantic article, for an immunization regime to work, “we all have to do it.” Only a vaccine mandate can fulfill UWM’s duty to safeguard public health.
On Tuesday, Interim President Thompson expressed openness to the idea of a vaccine requirement, not now, but “if the Delta variant changes.” His openness to the idea is welcome, but his reasoning is backwards. The reason to mandate vaccines now is to prevent a wider outbreak in the future; if we wait until things get worse, it will already be too late to take effective action. The longer viral spread remains unchecked, the greater the opportunity for vaccine-resistant variants to emerge, putting those ineligible for vaccination at risk, and reversing much of the good the current vaccine has achieved. The vaccine should therefore be deployed as widely as possible, as soon as possible.
UWM does not currently require any vaccinations—though it strongly recommends inoculation against measles, mumps, tetanus, and several other diseases. Mandates are unnecessary in these cases since statutory vaccine requirements during elementary education ensure widespread immunity. We cannot count on the same mechanism to protect against COVID-19. The university has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for students, staff, and faculty. Voluntary vaccine uptake alone has proven insufficient to generate the herd immunity necessary to restore “business as usual” in our education systems, and in society as a whole. In these circumstances, implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate is strongly supported by the ethical principles that apply in a public health crisis, including support for the common good, beneficence, and the moral responsibility to take steps to avoid harm.
While we affirm that a vaccine mandate is the best way to ensure the well-being of all, we recognize that such a policy may require greater time and resources to support fulfillment among some members of the university community—particularly those from historically marginalized groups. We therefore urge university leadership to issue a vaccine requirement paired with equity-minded, reasonable accommodations for students and employees who may be disproportionately affected by its demands, such as reasonable time and workplace flexibility to receive the vaccine (or medical exemption paperwork if needed), special vaccination clinics, financial resources toward education and outreach, and other support structures.
A steadily growing list of universities around the country have recognized these realities and responded accordingly. Our neighboring university systems in Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois have issued vaccine mandates—as have our colleagues across town at Marquette. UWM should immediately join them in taking the strongest possible action to safeguard the health of students, staff, and the communities we serve and live in.
At a time when disinformation is widespread, when scientific matters of fact are somehow the subject of political controversy, it is more important than ever for UWM to live up to its guiding principles—The Wisconsin Idea, the search for truth that remains at the core of our mission statement. In our roles as stewards of knowledge and public servants, it is our duty to provide clear-eyed leadership, now more than ever.