Maggie Aldrich is a sophomore English major.
From the Hilltop to Capitol Hill, the delay of the COVID-19 vaccine has impacted us all. Considering President Joe Biden’s promise to provide 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, USF’s announcement of their intention to reopen campus in the fall, and most recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lifting of stay at home orders for California residents, many are starting to see the light at the end of what has been called the “dark winter.” Despite the wishful thinking represented by these actions, we must still consider the harsh realities that both our university and country face. If thousands of USF students return to campus this fall, the wellbeing of our entire city could be compromised.
With an average of 172 new cases being confirmed daily in the city by the San Francisco Department of Public Health as of Jan. 24, USF students should weigh their health as they ponder whether or not to head back to the city for the fall 2021 semester. The majority of college students may be among the last people to receive a vaccination in California, since the state will follow an age-based roll out system for vaccinations, but the goal remains to vaccinate all eligible residents (those who are at least 16 years old) by June, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Our students— who not only hail from all over the United States, but from more than 100 countries worldwide, according to USF’s International Student and Scholar Services— would be returning to campus with different COVID-19 regulation experiences. If USF sat in a quaint college town, it may be a different story, but our campus is about as urban as it can get. USF’s location means that we not only have to consider the health risks a potential return to campus poses to our student and staff populations, but also the larger impact it could have on our city, since a huge part of our campus culture involves exploring San Francisco.
While USF requires vaccinations for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella, (MMR), students are given the option to opt out of these vaccinations if medical conditions conflict. If USF were to call for all on-campus students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to the Hilltop, it’s possible that students would be able to similarly decline the vaccination requirement, as some do for MMR. The debate of whether academic institutions can mandate or simply suggest the vaccination of students is a concept that has been widely scrutinized with the COVID-19 vaccine, and is a decision that will take time to unpack for our university and others alike. However, with a virus so contagious and deadly, what would honoring this choice mean for the rest of the community?
As doses of the vaccine continue to be administered, achieving herd immunity to COVID-19 is the ultimate goal. According to the Mayo Clinic, herd immunity “occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected—not just those who are immune.”
While Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to Biden, initially estimated that we would need 60%-70% immunity to halt the spread of the virus in the United States, according to The New York Times, Fauci has reevaluated that requirement to 80%-85% immunity, although he notes 90% would be ideal.
However, the reality is that 90% immunity is rather unattainable. Even if we were to achieve that by the end of the summer, as we consider returning to campus in the fall, we must keep in mind that social distancing and mask-wearing practices will most likely continue to be in place for another semester or two, at least. To add to that, the elusive goal of herd immunity is contingent upon vaccinations proving effective, which is more in doubt than ever given the new strains of COVID that have entered the country. It’s possible that we may find ourselves vaccinated without a guarantee of how effective the protection will be against all forms of COVID.
Ultimately, if Newsom’s plan takes effect and all San Francisco residents are indeed vaccinated by the summer, an influx of USF students moving in throughout August could compromise San Francisco’s overall herd immunity if student vaccination is subject to the same excusable clauses USF allows for other vaccinations, or worse, not required at all.
As a student, I’m aware that I’d be taking a risk by returning to campus this fall whether there is or isn’t a vaccine requirement in place. But, I would be ashamed to learn that my return to in-person learning caused a drastic increase in citywide cases, especially for more vulnerable populations such as houseless people, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised.
The University must require students returning to campus in the fall to have a COVID vaccination. We cannot afford to be lenient about vaccinations considering the coronavirus has killed more than 400,000 people in the United States and counting. Even if we are all vaccinated, we, as students, and, in many cases, temporary San Francisco residents, owe it to our beloved city to return to campus with the priority of following all COVID guidelines in order to protect every resident, not just ourselves.
The USF community and our campus culture can still thrive despite taking these precautions. But, a return to campus without an adherence to adequate health and safety measures, both on the part of the University administration and student body, would mean many San Franciscans could suffer for our convenience.