By Molly Minta
After just 19 minutes of discussion, the board of trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning approved a motion Friday not to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students and employees at Mississippi’s eight public universities.
The 9-2 college board vote came the same week that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which many faculty and staff had hoped would open the door for the IHL or the universities to require the vaccine. Even Alfred McNair, one of the 12 trustees on the IHL board, had speculated that FDA approval might make requiring the COVID-19 vaccine politically tenable.
“We’re seeing a lot of young folks dying in the hospital right now, cause it’s mostly youth not taking the vaccine,” McNair said at an IHL health committee meeting last week. “Hopefully if this gets approved in September, we can maybe go beyond that, because these young people, this virus is attacking them big time.”
McNair was joined by Steven Cunningham, a radiologist and the only other physician on the board, in voting against the resolution. Trustee Gee Ogletree was not present at the meeting.
In a press release sent after the vote, J. Walt Starr, the IHL board president, acknowledged the vaccine is “the best protection against COVID-19 infections, transmissions, and has been medically reviewed and approved by our country’s leading scientific experts.”
The board encourages “all eligible students and employees within the university system to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” he said.
“However, the board does not deem it prudent to require it as a condition of employment or enrollment, except at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and other clinical settings,” Starr added.
While any of the eight public universities could choose to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine on their campuses, some university presidents had said they would not do that unless the IHL board voted to require it first. IHL’s decision seemingly foreclosed the possibility that those schools might mandate the vaccine.
Conducted over Zoom to a nearly empty room in the Research and Education Complex in Jackson, the emergency meeting began with Starr opening up the discussion to his colleagues. Just one concerned parent of a university student showed up to express his support of not requiring the vaccine. The rest of the attendees were reporters.
McNair and Cunningham were the first trustees to speak. Their arguments, which emphasized a vaccine mandate would protect the health of college students, failed to persuade the rest of the board.
McNair told the board that his position was informed by his work on the COVID response in Biloxi where he has seen the effect of the virus on college-aged people.
“My point of view: Taking care of these patients every day, what I’m seeing is the younger patients who are the ones in trouble,” McNair said. “These young people think they’re immune, but actually that’s where the virus is hitting, and the colleges are just wide open for it.”
Cunningham chimed in: “As the other physician on the board, I concur. We’ve tried doing this on a volunteer basis, but I really think mandating is gonna be the only way to help save some of these kids.”
The other trustees countered by speculating that thousands of students and parents might ask for a refund if the vaccine were mandated. They further surmised that a mandate might not be necessary because the virus has reached its peak.
“I’m not sure if we have the information, but I’d be curious to see: I’ve spoken with a couple other doctors recently who think we’ve peaked and that we may be about to see a downturn,” IHL trustee Teresa Hubbard said. “I’m not quite sure how they justify that or where that information comes from, but do we have anything to support that information?”
“We really don’t know for sure,” IHL Commissioner Al Rankins said in response, “but … there have been some reports to that effect.”
Bruce Martin, an insurance agent, said he had seen that delta’s “RT-factor,” or transmission rate, is dropping in Mississippi, but did not say where he’d read that. “That would indicate that it’s getting better if that thing that everybody talks about is a correct indicator,” he said.
McNair pushed back by pointing out that the transmission rate depends on who is and is not getting vaccinated in a community. “When you start getting a whole bunch of kids together … unvaccinated together, these numbers are going to go back up.”
“Another issue, peak or no peak,” Cunningham added, “you’re gonna have a significant number of unvaccinated people out there and that means you have a significant number of available hosts for this thing to jump to and mutate again to the next Greek letter variant.”
But McNair and Cunningham’s arguments did not convince the other nine trustees.
“There’s a certain segment of the population that is not going to get vaccinated, and it just boggles my mind but they will just not do it and us mandating it is not going to make those people do it,” Martin said. “We’ve taken their money, they’ve enrolled in the school, and I don’t know how in the world you’re going to get people to be vaccinated by demanding they be vaccinated, because they’re just not gonna do it.”
Trustee Hal Parker said he agreed. Starr asked Rankins, the commissioner, how a mandate would affect students, given they have already enrolled in the school. Rankins surmised that some students who are strongly opposed to getting the vaccine might leave school.
At that point in the discussion, it was clear the trustees had already determined how they were going to vote.
“I’m wondering what we can do to strongly encourage, and that way … we don’t infringe on freedoms, but just put so much information out there that the one conclusion we hope everyone comes to is that they do decide to get the vaccine,” said trustee Ormella Cummings, who works as the chief strategy officer for North Mississippi Health Services.”
Trustee Jeanne Luckey, who owns a real estate company, suggested revisiting the vaccine mandate next year.
“If we mandate the vaccine now it would be difficult to go back and say it is no longer mandated,” she said.
Trustee Chip Morgan, the last trustee to speak, said he respected McNair and Cunningham’s perspectives but that mandating the vaccine at this time would be a “terrible mistake.”
Starr asked if any of the trustees had more comments, then Morgan made a motion for the board to support the vaccine, but not require it.
“We ought to say at this time, it’s our view that we would not impose any requirements on the universities to mandate vaccination,” he said.
Classes started this week at Jackson State University, University of Mississippi and University of Southern Mississippi. Classes started the week of Aug. 16 at Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women, and Mississippi Valley State University.