Scientists and health officials agree that reaching herd immunity through vaccination is key to lifting social distancing measures and returning to work and school life that looks somewhat like pre-COVID times. Students, professors and administrators are hopeful that with the Vassar community receiving their doses, next semester will look more like the fall of 2019 than the fall of 2020. “It is too early to know, but we are hopeful that conditions will allow for us to return to something approaching our pre-pandemic ‘normal,’” commented President Elizabeth Bradley.
The results of a survey sent out by Bradley paint a picture of how close the Vassar community is to herd immunity. Of the 1,222 student responses, 46.7 percent had one dose of a two-dose vaccine, 22.9 percent have an appointment to receive a vaccine, nine percent have received two doses but are not past the two weeks time for the vaccine to reach full efficacy and 5.4 percent have had two doses more than two weeks ago, meaning these students are fully vaccinated. Only 12.9 percent of students reported not having a vaccine appointment.
Employees of the College who work in-person have been qualified to receive the vaccine since March. While the College focused on getting student-facing employees and professors vaccinated, many student employees realized they qualified too. On March 22, Student Employment sent an email to students notifying them they may qualify for the vaccine with their on-campus jobs. Students began making appointments at local vaccine distributors in the area, some driving as far as an hour away to get to their appointments.
Griffin Wells ’22 explained that he and his friends drove to SUNY Orange to receive their doses of the Pfizer vaccine after he qualified as an in-person student employee. He shared that the process of getting vaccinated was straightforward. “It was super quick and easy. I showed them a screenshot from Workday, didn’t even need the letter from my boss,” he commented.
Eligibility opened up to the entire student body on April 6. While students were making appointments in the Dutchess County area and beyond, the College was waiting to be approved to vaccinate students. On April 7, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana announced via email to students that Vassar had secured 500 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine through New York State, and would be holding a pop-up clinic on Monday, April 12 to distribute the doses to students. Alamo-Pastrana explained that students with underlying health conditions and public-facing student workers would be prioritized.
Because of the initiative students had been taking since March to secure off-campus appointments as soon as possible, there was less of a demand for the on-campus vaccines than expected by administration. Students were told they had to sign up for an on-campus appointment by the end of the day April 8, but the College ended up extending the deadline to sign up until 1 p.m. on April 9. “We did not have a tally of exactly how many students had already attained vaccination appointments in other ways, off campus,” commented Bradley. “It turns out many have, which is very good news,” she added. On Monday, students received an email notifying them that there were surplus vaccines and they could walk into the AULA without making an appointment. Students are now being asked by Health Services to submit their vaccine records.
Bradley emphasized that while many students have received one dose of vaccination, the 12.9 percent of students who reported they did not have an appointment yet would be offered appointments on campus. Beyond the pop-up clinic Monday, the College announced that they would shuttle students to Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital on Friday, April 16 to receive doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Plans to have another pop-up clinic on campus was complicated by news that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being suspended by the Centers for Disease Control because of rare cases of blood clots from the vaccine.
The knowledge that all students on campus could soon be partially and fully vaccinated raises questions about what social-distancing protocols will look like in the later weeks of the semester. Bradley gauged student interest in the survey for some potential policy shifts, including allowing two pods to combine into a superpod, allowing students to walk into Arlington without going inside buildings, letting larger groups meet inside and outside, allowing families to visit campus and permitting spectators to sporting events. Bradley explained that she and Alamo-Pastrana decided on these policies based on student feedback. Bradley shared that all of these policies received over 74 percent student support in the survey, with superpods and larger groups both receiving 90 percent or higher.
On Tuesday, April 13, Alamo-Pastrana announced that starting April 16 students will be able to walk into Arlington for outdoor food pickup. In addition, groups up to 25 are allowed to gather outdoors and are masked.
In terms of the widely anticipated “back to normal,” Bradley was hesitant to give a timeline for when academic, extracurricular and social life would drastically change on campus. “We are focusing now on getting everyone immune, which can be expected to take at least two weeks after the final dose. So, this is still a while away for us,” she explained. She also emphasized that the College would not adopt any policy that allowed different expectations for vaccinated and unvaccinated students based on the school’s principle of equity.
Looking further ahead, Bradley announced on April 14 that the College will return to in-person, on campus learning. All students will be required to be vaccinated, although the College will allow exceptions for medical and religious reasons. The “bubble model” will effectively end with students being able to go back and forth out of campus and have visitors. No official decisions have been made yet about social distancing expectations or mask-wearing.
While the pandemic is not behind the Vassar community yet, the excitement among students is palpable. For the first time since the pandemic emerged, we may be counting down to herd immunity on campus in terms of weeks instead of months.