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Unlike neighboring D.C. schools, Catholic University will not enforce vaccine mandate

The university is the only campus in the District that will not require returning students to be vaccinated

Catholic University will not enforce a vaccine mandate when it fully reopens classrooms and residence halls this fall. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Catholic University will not enforce a coronavirus vaccine mandate when it fully reopens classrooms and residence halls this fall, a departure from other colleges in the District.

John Garvey, the university’s president, said he is confident most of the community will get vaccinated on its own before the fall semester starts, rendering the types of mandates seen at neighboring schools unnecessary. “We found that 70 percent of the community had already been vaccinated with at least one shot, and this was nearly a month ago,” said Garvey, referencing a recent universitywide survey that garnered about 2,500 responses. “It was clear we would get to 80, 85 percent in a couple of months.”

Rather than enforce a mandate, the university is strongly encouraging students, faculty and staff to get their shots. Garvey, who contracted the coronavirus last year, said he is vaccinated.

Yet Catholic’s stance is at odds with guidance from the American College Health Association — a national group of campus health professionals — which said widespread vaccination is the most effective way for schools to reopen safely and recommends that schools adopt requirements.

And some students are pushing against the decision, which they say threatens public health — mirroring tensions felt in nearly every institution, from workplaces to concert venues, as Americans debate the merits of vaccine mandates. “I think it’s too big of a risk to not look into enforcing it,” said Nathan Highley, a rising senior at Catholic. “When students are participating in the community, going to stores, going to restaurants, it puts those unvaccinated and elderly members of the community at risk.”

Each school in the District has approached vaccine requirements differently. At George Washington University, students, faculty and staff who come to campus will have to be inoculated. Howard University’s mandate extends only to students.

American University shared plans in April to require vaccines for students, then changed course this week and included employees. The University of the District of Columbia will require “full vaccination” for anyone using its facilities in the fall.

Policies at Trinity Washington and Gallaudet universities include students and employees.

American, Georgetown universities join growing list of campuses to require coronavirus vaccines

At Catholic — a campus of about 5,770 students in Northeast Washington — officials have entrusted students and employees to act on their own, something Garvey said he is comfortable doing after ending the semester with a less-than-one-percent infection rate.

Garvey is also sensitive to those with reservations about requiring a vaccine, even if they are a minority. He said between 35 and 40 percent of those who responded to the schoolwide survey said leaders should not enforce a requirement. “I think we’re respecting people’s apprehensions at the moment,” Garvey said. “I think the whole society is working that out one institution at a time.”

Students and employees shared medical concerns and religious objections, Garvey said. Some Catholics continue to disagree about the morality of getting coronavirus vaccines — even after Pope Francis became fully vaccinated and said everyone has a duty to do the same. Several Catholic colleges — including Georgetown, Notre Dame and DePaul universities — are requiring vaccines for their communities.

U.S. bishops splinter on the morality of taking coronavirus vaccines

Vaccine hesitancy in certain communities, as well as the drugs’ emergency-use status, further complicate the issue, Garvey said. While the vaccines have undergone rigorous safety tests, some students and employees do not want to be inoculated until the vaccines have full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, he said.

But some on campus said the university owes it to the greater community to enforce a vaccine mandate. Ward 5, where Catholic University is located, has the biggest share of the District’s coronavirus cases, the most recent city data shows. “They’re promoting this individualized way of life which is not really how you can operate when you’re in a pandemic,” said Chloe Van Syckel, a politics major, adding that a mandate would protect the neighborhood that surrounds Catholic. “I think that it’s really selfish.”

University of Virginia to mandate coronavirus vaccines for students

Van Syckel, 21, said she probably would not have serious complications if she was exposed to the virus — she is young, healthy and vaccinated — “but that’s not the reality for everyone at our school,” she said. Older faculty, food service and janitorial staff, and students with health issues that prevent them from getting vaccinated are all at risk.

The debate over vaccine requirements comes as the school updates its mandatory mask policy, which now excludes fully vaccinated individuals as long as they are not showing symptoms of covid-19. The administration is relying on the honor code, asking students to be honest about their vaccination status and mask up if they do not have their shots.

That trust is not unfounded, Garvey said. While many universities stayed shuttered in fall 2020, Catholic invited first-year students to campus and continued to expand housing through the spring. Catholic has tested nearly 9,000 people on campus since January and reported just 62 cases, according to the school’s virus dashboard. “We have done a really good job of handling the problem,” Garvey said. “So I feel pretty confident.”