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UConn Mandates COVID-19 Vaccines For Staff And Faculty Ahead Of Fall Semester

University of Connecticut main campus in Storrs, Connecticut.
University of Connecticut main campus in Storrs, Connecticut.

The University of Connecticut is joining colleges that are making it mandatory for staff and faculty to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 ahead of the fall semester.

The public university has notified 9,800 full- and part-time employees, including those who work at UConn Health, that they have until Oct. 15 to show proof of vaccination or get approved for a medical, religious or personal belief exemption.

“Our primary goal during this pandemic is to keep all employees, students, and patients safe,” Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, interim university president, said in a memo to staff dated Tuesday. “This is particularly important given the rise of the Delta variant and the upcoming start of in-person classes.”

After a significant drop in transmission early this summer due to rising vaccination rates, Connecticut is again seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. State health officials say much of that is due to the highly contagious delta variant. The majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated people.

Colleges and universities, with communal living and close-quarter environments, pose challenges in containing the spread of the coronavirus. Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends high vaccination coverage among students and staff in order to prevent outbreaks.

UConn’s new vaccine mandate will apply to employees at the main campus in Storrs, regional campus locations and at UConn Health in Farmington. Staff who are not vaccinated because of exemptions will need to be tested weekly.

The requirements are similar to a vaccine mandate for on-campus students, adopted by the board of trustees in June.

The staff vaccine policy was made in an agreement with unions that represent campus and health care employees, and local chapters of professional organizations like the American Association of University Professors.

Kathy Fischer is president of the UConn Professional Employees Association, AFT Local 3695, which represents about 2,000 union members working at Storrs and other regional campuses.

“I’d say we’ve heard more positive [feedback], that it makes folks feel safer to know that their colleagues, the students, are also vaccinated,” she said. “Our members are entitled to a workplace that actively avoids preventable harms."

Fischer, who is also the associate director of the Women’s Center at UConn, added that a majority of union members are already vaccinated. Bill Garrity, emergency department nurse and president of University Health Professionals, AFT Local 3837, said the same is true among union staff at UConn Health.

The local union represents about 2,850 employees — about half of the health organization’s total workforce.

“There’s a small population that is arguing that they don’t think it [a mandate] should be done and they have their freedoms,” Garrity said, “which is one of the reasons why we pushed so hard to make sure that there was the possibility for medical and religious exemption.”

Under the vaccine policy, employees can also defer intended vaccinations if they are pregnant or breastfeeding, have certain medical conditions and treatments, are out on family and medical leave or are currently infected with COVID-19.

Union leaders said the current agreement ensures that if a union employee does not get vaccinated and violates the terms of the university’s vaccination policy, that employee will still go through a regular disciplinary process with union representation.

But Garrity and Fischer hope those cases will be rare, given the exemption options available.

“Being vaccinated, masking and social distancing are what it’s going to take to fight this virus,” Garrity said. “And we’re losing the ability to social distance by putting everybody back at work together, there’s mask fights everywhere, so vaccination is one of the most important things we can do. Every time this virus mutates, it gets stronger. It’s our responsibility to try and put an end to it.”

Other large Connecticut universities like Quinnipiac and Yale have already implemented similar COVID-19 vaccination requirements for staff for the 2021-22 academic year.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is still negotiating agreements with union bargaining units at those locations.

CSCU, which includes four universities, 12 community colleges and an online-only institution, employs about 10,000 people.

“We are hopeful that they will follow the lead of their UConn counterparts and recognize that a vaccine requirement for all is beneficial to the employees they represent,” said Leigh Appleby, CSCU spokesperson.

In-person fall semester classes begin later this month at most colleges. Orientation for new incoming students and other on-campus programs may begin earlier.

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio

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