A Booster Mandate Debate at Columbia

Some faculty members petition not to require the new omicron-specific booster once it becomes available this fall

| 25 Aug 2022 | 10:16

In April 2021, Columbia University became one of the first universities to implement a vaccine mandate. The first booster was made mandatory for students and faculty as of January 31, 2022. But now some faculty members are raising concerns about the next generation of boosters. They have written a petition to the university administration regarding the possibility of a vaccine mandate for the omicron-specific booster expected to arrive this fall.

Professor Spiro Pantazatos, who teaches clinical neurobiology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, recently drafted a petition preemptively asking Columbia administrators not to mandate the booster once it becomes available. An omicron-specific booster could be available as soon as early to mid-September, though it will likely be administered to those over 50 years of age before it becomes available to college students.

The letter currently has around 80 signatures. It argues that the risk-benefit analysis is unfavorable for vaccinating largely young and healthy college students for omicron, given that the infection mortality for their age group is currently low, between 0.003% and 0.005%.It also cites several concerns with the COVID-19 vaccines overall, such as the occurrence of myocarditis in rare cases following vaccination.

When it comes to the current strain of omicron, “the risk of the vaccination is low, but so is the risk of the virus,” says Pantazatos. “When you advocate for a preventative measure, you want to be sure the benefits are going to outweigh the risks.”

The letter cites a CDC presentation to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on September 23, 2021, whose data reported that 8,738 people must receive doses of the first booster in order to prevent one COVID-19-related hospitalization. Meanwhile, the CDC presentation stated that for those ages 18-29, 26 cases of myocarditis per million vaccine doses are expected. The CDC author concluded that while the first vaccine booster has a favorable risk-benefit for adults over 65 years of age, there is “uncertainty around the balance of benefits and risks” for younger populations such as college students.

Current Policy

Under current policy, Columbia faculty and staff are required to be up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccines in order to enroll. As of April 15, Columbia’s leadership defined up-to-date as “at minimum to have received the primary vaccination series and the first booster dose.”

No decision has yet been made by the Columbia administration about whether or not to mandate the omicron booster. A letter sent to faculty on August 15th from the university provost, Mary C. Boyce, stated, “We look forward to continuing to restore all the regular routines of campus life, and we will remain vigilant, tracking changes in COVID-19 conditions and adjusting our policies accordingly.”

Donna Lynne, the university’s COVID director, states, “We have not made any decisions about the omicron specific booster, but will evaluate it when the evidence comes in. President [Lee] Bollinger has appointed a COVID-19 task force that is comprised of a number of senior level officials including public health experts.”

Universities across the country currently differ considerably in their Covid vaccine policies. Many, like Columbia, mandate that students have both the primary vaccines and the first booster; Harvard is an example. Others, like the University of Massachusetts campuses, mandate the primary vaccine but have not as of yet made the booster mandatory. Still others, including Virginia Tech and the University of Wisconsin, have no vaccine mandate for students at all, though many of their websites state that they still encourage students to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations.

NPR reported that the UK has already approved omicron-specific boosters; they also reported that US has already purchased more than 170 million doses of omicron boosters. As for Columbia’s policy with regards to the new booster, the university’s decision remains to be seen.

“We will be considering this decision in September as the FDA and CDC actions become more apparent,” says Lynne.