As Wellesley students return to campus during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccinations are on the forefront of almost every conversation. Several universities in the Boston area have already announced plans to vaccinate members of their community, including MIT, Boston University and Tufts University.
In an effort to answer general questions and assuage health and safety concerns, College Vice President and Dean of Students Sheilah Horton sent out an email to Spring on-campus students on Jan. 28. In it, she announced that the College was in ongoing discussions with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Wellesley-Newton Hospital regarding the distribution of vaccines for students, with hopes for the vaccine rollout to begin sometime in April or May. In addition, Casey Bayer, director of media relations, notified the News that the College will be releasing a statement with more information later today.
The current lack of details provided by the College has left many students with more questions than answers. In a survey conducted by The News, only 59 out of the 123 students polled were confident in the College’s ability to distribute the vaccine by April. Many students remain wary of the timeline after reports of a slowdown in distribution at the state and national level made headlines this month.
“I just personally have some doubts about whether or not local governments will be able to get organized enough to roll out the sheer quantity of vaccines that they need by April,” Hannah Klein ’21 said.
Other students have also raised concerns about the ethicality of vaccinating college students before other higher-risk groups.
“I don’t think that Wellesley promised anything, and I don’t think they can promise anything just because they have to work with [the Massachusetts government],” Emma Wallenbrook ’24 said. “It makes sense for a college situation to be one of the lowest priority groups because we’re all living together [in a bubble], but I don’t think anyone will be worrying about us when there are more important groups like essential workers … [and] older people, at-risk people.”
Many of these at-risk groups include the school’s faculty and staff, who are often older and can be potentially exposed to the virus outside of the campus bubble. Of the 26 individuals who tested positive on-campus for COVID-19 prior to Feb. 2, 14 were staff.
“If they’re not also vaccinating every staff and faculty member, they really should not [vaccinate students],” an anonymous survey respondent said.
Students raise concerns about vaccine manufacturers, off-campus vaccinations
I’m not worried about the vaccine, I’m worried about people’s reactions.
Given the recency of the vaccine’s development, some are worried about potential side-effects and previously unknown long-term risk (Pfizer, the earliest approved vaccine, is still undergoing Phase III clinical trials where primary outcomes will be monitored until Aug. 2021).
“At the end of the day I would take it because it’s there, but I think apprehension is pretty common among people right now,” Samantha Cuenta ’21 said. “As much as we can say the vaccine has been tested and approved, it’s that newness … that I think is a reasonable factor for people to be a little apprehensive.”
Even those receptive to receiving the vaccine have asked which manufacturer the College will partner with, given that the currently available vaccines have different efficacy rates against different variants and distinct side-effects.
“I’m pretty sure that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have certain risks considering whether or not one has allergies, and if that’s true, it would be a little risky to carry that out during the term because the side effects could severely impact the student population’s health and capabilities,” Britney Zhang ’24 said. “I really hope Wellesley does a great amount of research on the vaccine we are going to be given and open up the information to those who will receive it so we can all make an informed decision.”
For example, while Moderna and Pfizer have infection prevention rates in the high 90s, the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which applied for emergency authorization to the FDA on Feb. 4, was only 72% effective for protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 in U.S. trials. New strains, such as in South Africa, where a new variant of the virus that eludes immune responses was recently discovered, have also complicated the process; while vaccine-makers claim that efficacy has only slightly dropped against these strains, the difference is significant enough that Moderna is already looking into developing booster shoots in addition to its two advised doses.
“I just don’t know how the College is going to be able to plan all this,” a student who wished to be anonymous said. “We’re not just talking about one dose like the flu shot. This is maybe going to be at least two, three doses that have to be carefully scheduled to maintain efficacy, all while storing at low temperatures in equipment that I don’t know [if] the College has.”
Despite the hesitancy among some, the majority of survey respondents said they would get the vaccine if it became available at Wellesley.
“I know there are a lot of people who are hesitant about taking the vaccine, but I think if you can get vaccinated you should,” Grace Turner ’23 said. “That increases the safety of the campus and the community that much more. It would allow more flexibility for us … it would guarantee that no one would get deathly ill because of COVID.”
There are many who believe holding a conversation is necessary to emphasize just how important herd immunity is.
“I think the best way in my experience is to go open at then with open ears and open hearts. I always want to hear the fears of other students fully and with compassion,” Klein said. “There’s a true risk of not getting the vaccine could have on other students, versus the risk you pose to other students … I can only assume that the tiny risk [of] getting the vaccine is only going to pale in comparison to that.”
Paradoxically, a greater threat to the campus ‘bubble’ may not be those without vaccines, but rather vaccinated students who have a false sense of security.
“My biggest concern is the impact of people on the other side of the spectrum thinking that once they get that first shot everything is fine and we can take off the masks and break COVID protocols,” Wallenbrook said. “Once you get the first one, it’s only 50% effective, and [for] the second one you have to let the antibodies build up in your body. It takes a certain amount of time for the vaccine to be as effective as it can be. I’m worried that people who get the vaccine just the first dose will think oh, I’m safe now. I’d like to tell those people no, please be safe and sanitary. I’m not worried about the vaccine, I’m worried about people’s reactions.”
Horton recognized the need for following protocol in the email.
“Students who have been vaccinated will be required to follow the same preventative safety protocols as others including wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and frequently washing hands,” she wrote.
Students face difficulties in receiving vaccine
There really wasn’t any support that I thought Wellesley had mentioned in the email.
Since the majority of Wellesley students are not currently eligible to receive the vaccine, distribution by the College would likely be the earliest opportunity for many students to get vaccinated.
For students who have already gotten the first dose of the vaccine, however, the issue of receiving a second has potentially complicated matters.
In the Jan. 28 email, Dean Horton advised students who had received the first dose to reach out to Health Services to discuss their options for a second dose — but many students are finding that their choices are limited.
Sinclaire Schuetze ’23 and Turner both received one dose of the vaccine prior to returning to campus. In order to receive the second dose, they will either need to fly home or wait until they become eligible in Massachusetts.
“There really wasn’t any support that I thought Wellesley had mentioned in the email,” Schuetze, who is high-risk, said. “That just wasn’t there.”
At the moment, both students are opting to fly back to their home states, but are wary of the mandatory two week quarantine after they return to Wellesley.
“My biggest frustration is that there isn’t a set plan for how students can get their second dose if they got their first dose,” Turner said. “I would like a little more information on a set plan. I have the ability to fly home and some students may be able to drive home, but there’s some students who can’t do that.”
Some students have simply resigned themselves to wait for eligibility status, a process that could delay their second dose by weeks. These vital doses are in high demand in the Commonwealth after a glitch in the Massachusetts vaccination website caused over 3600 in-state residents who received a first dose to be left without a second appointment.
“I am going to have to go a prolonged period with just one shot, and that’s better than nothing, but [I’m] frustrated that [Massachusetts] won’t give a second shot to those who got it,” a survey respondent said. “[I’m a] little worried about the idea of too many people with only one shot spreading a vaccine-resistant strain since they aren’t fully immune.”
Concerns over mandatory vaccination
I hope that the College can trust us students to make the decisions that will keep our campus community safe and healthy on our own initiative, and approach the issue with sensitivity and compassion rather than duress.
While the College has detailed vague vaccination plans for those returning to campus in the spring, there have been no plans of the sort for remote students at this time. This, among other factors, have raised concerns about whether the College should mandate vaccination in the spring and for eligibility to return in the fall.
Cuenta noted that her experience living on campus in the fall impacted how she views the College’s potential mandatory vaccination policy.
“Having lived on campus the first semester, there’s a very strange culture forcing students to live a certain way, and there’s distrust among students,” Cuenta said. “I don’t think using the harsh punitive language of ‘do this’ ‘do that,’ is the first step … I think switching from a language of compulsion to a language of opportunity would be a great way for the College to increase morale.”
An anonymous survey respondent echoed Cuenta’s sentiment about encouragement over enforcement. They added that for certain communities who may have reasons to be wary against the medical industry, the decision should not be made by the College.
“As someone who is both very public health-conscious and also from a community that has been targeted and treated horribly by the medical/biotech industry, this is a very heavy topic and a heavy decision to make. I do not believe that it is in the College’s place to make that decision on my behalf,” the student wrote. “I hope that the College can trust us students to make the decisions that will keep our campus community safe and healthy on our own initiative, and approach the issue with sensitivity and compassion rather than duress.”
Many survey respondents believed that unless the College distributed the vaccine to all students, there would be accessibility issues for those who weren’t able to return for the spring semester, including those studying abroad during Term 4. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote that this would be “a discriminator approach” that would overlook many international students coming from countries without access to a vaccine or vaccines that have not been approved yet by the FDA (such as the Chinese Sinovac, English Oxford-AstraZeneca, or Russian Sputnik V). Another student raised concerns about mandatory vaccination having a disproportionate impact to Black and Brown students, especially given that fewer vaccination sites exist within majority Black and Brown communities.
“I think it’s interesting that none of this info was communicated to students who will be off campus in the spring,” Alyssa Robins ’22 said. “It’s particularly interesting because many of the folks who decided to stay off-campus did so because they are immunocompromised and at more risk of contracting severe COVID than students returning to campus are. I guess I wish there was a plan to get those off-campus students the vaccine, too.”
Ultimately for many Wellesley students, the possibility of a normal end to the year is still up in the air — but hopeful.
“I’ve spent my entire college career building all these connections that I cherish so much,” Klein said. “I’m really aware that a lot of my friends are spread across the country … [but] even if it’s just for a couple days at the end of our senior year, the idea of being able to come together and connect with these incredible peers that I have, that would be really impactful. Just being able to see them and hug them.”