NSHE faculty urge health officials to require Covid shot by start of fall semester

By: - August 11, 2021 6:30 am
down the street

(Nevada Current file photo)

Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) faculty and staff Tuesday urged state health officials to mandate a Covid-19 vaccine requirement for college students “as soon as possible,” calling further delay a “failure.”

But the state Board of Health declined to take any action to expedite consideration of a vaccine mandate at its emergency meeting Tuesday, instead sticking with its plan to take up the subject Sept. 3.

NSHE staff and faculty pushed for the board to call an emergency meeting as soon as next week to mandate Covid-19 vaccines before the fall semester 2021.

Fall semester classes start August 23. 

“As you are medical professionals we are calling on you to consider the public health necessity of vaccination among students,” said Kent Ervin, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance. “The Delta variant will not wait for Spring 2022 registration.”

Nationally, over 680 universities and colleges have required students or employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, Ervin said.

For example, the California State University System has issued vaccination mandates, and a federal court upheld a mandatory vaccination requirement at Indiana University.

A petition sponsored by the Nevada Faculty Alliance calling for a “safe fall semester” by requesting mandatory student vaccinations before students return to classes, was signed by nearly 700 NSHE faculty and staff members in two days.

However, Nevada Health Response officials have indicated that if and when the state requires a mandate, it would apply to the Spring semester 2022.

That timeline follows recommendations from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Medical Advisory Team, a group of medical professionals who advise the governor. 

Trudy Larson, who has served as a member of Nevada’s Medical Advisory Team, said a vaccine mandate “would be impossible to implement for fall semester” as it would require at least 6 weeks to get students fully vaccinated and protected. 

The Council of Faculty Senate Chairs, an elected body representing both academic and administrative faculty at NSHE institutions, asked the health board on Tuesday to consider an emergency order to mandate the Covid-19 vaccine for all students returning to in-person learning on campuses.

“Our institutions want to do our part to limit the spread of the virus and protect our campuses and surrounding communities, but we currently lack the authority to do the one measure we believe to be essential in this fight: a COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” said Amy Pason, the council’s chair.

Earlier this month, NSHE legal counsel concluded that only the State Board of Health may require vaccination for university and college students, punting the highly charged decision to state health officials. That legal interpretation has been publicly panned by faculty at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, the only law school in the state.

Faculty of NSHE who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting reiterated that criticism, and urged the board to look past the potential political opposition they may face and make the decision to mandate vaccines sooner rather than later.

“I recognize that this is not necessarily an urgent responsibility that this board requested. It is however one that political and legal wrangling has left on your doorstep,” said Ian Hartshorn,  an associate professor of political science at UNR. 

During the board meeting David Orentlicher, director of the UNLV Health Law Program, spoke on behalf of his colleagues.

“With the emergency that we’re in it is essential to expedite our response. We know enough about Covid and the Covid vaccine to decide this question now, and because of the long-standing availability of vaccines and the severe nature of the Covid threat, it is both fair and vital that we move quickly,” Orentlicher said. “We believe it appropriate to require the first dose of vaccine by August 23rd for students who attend classes and participate in other activities on campus.”

Other NSHE faculty members expressed disappointment with what they saw as the board’s lack of urgency to make a decision before the start of the fall semester.

“I’m here to comment on my dismay of the scientists on this board. It doesn’t seem like quick action is being taken in relation to a public health crisis,” said Anne Leonard, a biology professor at UNR. “You guys are public health scientists, you know that time is of the essence in a pandemic. It takes many weeks for vaccine immunity to build up, especially in relation to this Delta variant.” 

“I’m asking you to consider this urgently and to rise to meet the moment here,” Leonard said.

Educators at Nevada higher learning institutions have said they have had to scale back hands-on learning that would greatly benefit undergraduate students, because they can not guarantee the safety of their staff while teaching potentially unvaccinated students in class.

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.