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California’s massive UC and Cal State systems plan to require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall

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The University of California and California State University announced Thursday that they intend to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students, faculty and staff on campus properties this fall once the Food and Drug Administration gives formal approval to the vaccines and supplies are sufficiently available.

The directive is the largest of its kind in U.S. higher education, affecting more than 1 million members of the two public university systems. More than three dozen colleges nationwide have already announced they will require vaccination for enrollment this fall, including Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd in Claremont.

But UC and Cal State have not yet taken that step because of questions over the legality of requiring vaccines before they have been formally approved by the FDA. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are being distributed under emergency-use authorization, although health experts expect formal approval of at least one of them by the fall. The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is on pause due to concerns about blot clots.

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As with other mandatory shots for measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, the COVID-19 directive would allow for students or employees to seek an exemption based on medical or religious grounds.

“Together, the CSU and UC enroll and employ more than 1 million students and employees across 33 major university campuses, so this is the most comprehensive and consequential university plan for COVID-19 vaccines in the country,” said Cal State Chancellor Joseph I. Castro.

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UC President Michael V. Drake, a physician, said that vaccinations are a “key step people can take to protect themselves, their friends and family, and our campus communities while helping bring the pandemic to an end.”

The two system leaders said they were making the announcement now to give students, families and employees ample time to plan their vaccinations before the fall terms begin. They will discuss the immunization plan with students, faculty and labor unions before any implementation.

“The state of California has been a leader in the administration of COVID-19 vaccines, and Californians receiving a vaccine has led to significantly reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in our state,” Castro said. “Continued vigilance will further mitigate the spread of the disease that has radically altered our lives over the past year. We will continue to strongly encourage all members of our respective university communities to receive a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as it is available to them.”

Both UC and Cal State plan for mostly in-person instruction and activities this fall, although the degree will vary by campus.

At Claremont McKenna College, President Hiram Chodosh announced this month that all students would be required to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus this fall. Those unvaccinated — exempted for medical or religious reasons, for instance — would be tested for the coronavirus twice a week. In addition, the campus plans “limited, infrequent, randomized community testing and sequencing to decipher any unexpected risk of resistant variants,” he said.

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“It is now clear that a fully vaccinated community is the best way to reduce and eventually eliminate future restrictions on restoring our full in-person experience,” Chodosh said in his message to the campus community.

Vaccines are not required for K-12 schools because they are not yet approved for children under age 16.

In California, COVID-19 transmission and hospitalizations related to the virus are low and vaccinations are on the rise. More than 32% of the state has been fully vaccinated and more than 44% have had at least one dose, according to federal and state data. While those numbers continue to grow, a large chunk of the population has yet to get a shot.

Health experts believe that herd immunity — protection against the virus that occurs when a mass population has reached immunity through infection or vaccination — may be a long way off. But the idea of vaccine passports or requirements for vaccinations within certain spaces, such as school campuses or workplaces, could replicate that concept.

Some experts say that requiring vaccinations for students will make significant headway in containing the pandemic since young people at social gatherings have touched off COVID-19 spikes around USC and UC Berkeley, among other campuses.

While there has been no statewide or federal mandate ordering residents to get any emergency-authorized COVID-19 vaccine, there has been some indication already that a show of proof may be necessary at times. California recently allowed live indoor events and performances to occur for counties in the red, orange or yellow tiers. Evidence of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are required for entry.

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