After nearly a year since COVID-19 began receiving global attention, the Food and Drug Administration granted its first Emergency Use Authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 11. As the nation nears 300,000 COVID-19 related deaths, the vaccine, developed by Pfizer, marks a turning point in the pandemic. A second vaccine from Moderna has been recommended for EUA by an expert panel and likely awaits authorization in the coming days.
The first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine were delivered to hospitals Dec. 12, with healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities first in line to receive the vaccine. In Williamsburg, the vaccine arrived at Riverside Doctor’s Hospital early this week for frontline healthcare workers. It may be months until the vaccine is available to the general public. The role of higher education institutions in vaccinating their students, faculty and staff remains unclear.
In its COVID-19 vaccine playbook from Oct. 29, the Centers for Disease Control labels people attending and working at colleges and universities “at increased risk of acquiring or transmitting COVID-19.” The same document also identifies colleges and universities as potential vaccination sites and recommends vaccinating students upon arrival or enrollment. According to the CDC, college administrators are vital points of communication and information distribution to ensure this critical population is vaccinated.
For students at the College of William and Mary, who will begin another modified semester in the spring, the vaccine cannot come soon enough. Many students, staff and faculty await further information about whether the College will administer the vaccine as well as when they will receive it.
In an email sent to students Dec. 17, Chief Operating Officer and COVID-19 Response Director Amy Sebring assured that the College is monitoring the situation.
“As COVID-19 vaccine testing and deployment accelerates, the Virginia Department of Health is developing a protocol to administer inoculation across the Commonwealth,” Sebring said. “Currently, the state is prioritizing health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities for the first doses of the vaccine allocated to Virginia. William & Mary will continue to track the state’s plans regarding vaccinations and higher education.”
“As COVID-19 vaccine testing and deployment accelerates, the Virginia Department of Health is developing a protocol to administer inoculation across the Commonwealth. William & Mary will continue to track the state’s plans regarding vaccinations and higher education.”
College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet emphasized that the College does not have enough information to determine whether and when on-campus vaccination might occur.
“There isn’t enough information yet on the timing of broader vaccine availability for the university to establish its plan,” Clavet said. “Both the COVID-19 Response and Public Health Advisory Teams continue to monitor the conditions surrounding the pandemic and work with state agencies — including both the Governor’s Office and the Virginia Department of Health — and will continue to track their plans regarding vaccinations and higher education.”
The Flat Hat reached out to VDH for comment, but questions about the role of higher education in vaccine distribution and administration were characterized by Public Information Officer Bernard Hill as premature. VDH is taking a phased approach to vaccination. Hill said VDH is working in phase 1-A of its vaccine rollout plan, of which education is in phase 3 following phases 1-B, 1-C and 2. With many critical populations vaccinated ahead of phase 3 and uncertainty about vaccine supply, Hill said it is hard to answer questions about vaccine timing for higher education institutions. According to Hill, the vaccine’s multiple doses further complicate the timeline.
According to VDH’s preliminary planning documents, phase 3 will occur when the vaccine is “widely available” and vaccination of the general public is included in this phase. VDH places teachers and school staff in phase 1-B, which raises questions about whether faculty and staff at universities may be considered ahead of the general public.
VDH also announced intent to target college and university student health centers as vaccination centers, in addition to hospitals, doctor’s offices and clinics. Hill did not elaborate on these plans, nor did he mention any current plans for a vaccination center at the College.
There is little nationwide guidance for vaccine rollout and the Trump administration has left many decisions about distribution to state and local governments. The Flat Hat requested comment from Williamsburg local government officials but received no immediate response.
Until the College community is vaccinated, Sebring said that the spring semester will retain many of the precautionary measures initiated in the fall, including testing, pre-arrival quarantine, masks and social distancing.
Ultimately, many questions remain unanswered about the College’s potential role in vaccine distribution. Whether students, faculty and staff will receive their vaccinations at the College is unclear, as is whether high-contact, student-facing faculty and staff will be prioritized. While the vaccine is a hopeful symbol for the beginning of the end of the pandemic, many at the College may face a long wait before receiving the coveted vaccines.