The newly released COVID bivalent shots (targeting both the original Wuhan strain of SARS-CoV-2 and several currently dominant Omicron strains) have had their effectiveness strongly challenged by two recent trial studies (here, and here) which suggested that the original monovalent shots are more protective against disease.
Nonetheless, the CDC continues to advocate for the bivalent shots, and several universities in the United States have informed their students, both current and prospective, that booster injections are required for all students.
Among the colleges to have made bivalent boosters mandatory are Harvard, Tufts, Wellesley, Yale, and Fordham.
Michael Jordan, MD, MPH, executive medical director of occupational health services and university infection control health director at Tufts, told MedPage Today that the institution's requirement for all eligible faculty, staff, and students to get the bivalent booster is "in accordance with the university's current COVID-19 vaccine policies and aligned with U.S. CDC guidance, and based upon sound public health principles."
Jordan added that Tufts is still experiencing "new cases on our campuses" despite the fact that virtually everyone is vaccinated, and said that "signals suggest that cases are starting to increase across the United States including in some counties of Massachusetts.
"The updated (bivalent) booster will provide our students, faculty, and staff protection against the two Omicron sub-variants which are currently the predominant circulating viral strains," he said, describing his goal to "keep our entire community healthy and safe from widespread, severe infection, including those who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated due to religious or medical accommodation."
MedPage Today's reporter did not challenge Jordan on his assertion that mandating vaccination against COVID would protect those who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated, even though it has been common knowledge for many weeks that the shots were never tested for efficacy against transmission, and indeed that they do not prevent those infected with SARS-CoV-2 from passing on the virus to others.
Anita Barkin, PhD, MSN, NP-C, co-chair of the COVID-19 Task Force at the American College Health Association (ACHA), told MedPage Today that the ACHA “supports vaccination, the initial series, and the boosters … [in order to] protect our most vulnerable students and staff and faculty.” She added, in answer to MedPage Today's question, that students who have recently recovered from a documented COVID infection could avail themselves of medical or religious exemptions if they wanted to delay receipt of the booster shot.
The media has reported little in the way of protest against these and other vaccine mandates, but Inside Higher Ed has reported on a grassroots protest growing at Fordham University in New York where students face being locked out of campus if they do not receive a bivalent booster shot (or exemption) by November 1.
Fordham Parents Together, a group of parents of students, has gathered almost 1,200 signatures to a letter protesting the mandate which is to be sent to the university's president.
“Parents are upset that students and members of the committee have no choice,” said Laura Soricone, one of the signatories. “This idea that they’ll be disenrolled if they choose not to [get the booster] is crazy. I think the school has some sense that these boosters are going to quell the spread when there’s really no evidence that that’s the case.” Soricone's son, a student at Fordham, received both shots in the primary series and then a booster shot, after which he had myocarditis symptoms. Now he faces being forced to take another booster shot or be ejected from his studies.
Zachary Viscontis, a current student, is opposed to the booster mandate (but not vaccines in general). His main objection is the element of compulsion and he acknowledges that many students will submit rather than be forced out of college. “I think the largest population of students on campus are those who don’t want to get the booster but say, ‘Well, if I have to get it to stay here, then I’ll get it,’” he said. “It shouldn’t be forced," he added, pointing out that for many students just recently informed of the booster requirement, it's too late to transfer to another college and therefore, "it’s like, we don’t really have any other option now.”
Bob Howe is Fordham’s associate vice president for communications. He denied that there is any significant backlash to the mandate, and insisted that there is good evidence that the bivalent shots significantly cut the likelihood of transmission.
The Inside Higher Ed article claims there is a “significant body of evidence” that the bivalent booster is effective based on this study. However, the study shows that people who have not been vaccinated at all and have recovered from COVID are in virtually the identical position with regard to their chances of contracting COVID as those who are COVID-naive and recently boosted.
Fordham's policy, however, makes no allowances for those who have recovered from infection and requires that they should also be boosted. Neither do the other policies of other institutions allow an opt-out for those who have recovered from infection, even though the CDC now recognizes the protection prior infection affords.
Meanwhile, data show that college vaccine mandates remain an extremely effective way to enforce compliance, such that students remain far more likely than the general population to be “fully vaccinated”. Inside Higher Ed notes that over one thousand colleges and universities mandated the original shots, while over 60 mandated the first booster. However, less than 20 have mandated the bivalent booster this fall.