Over 48 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccination have been administered in the United States since Dec. 14, 2020, including staff from the Student Health Center and testing center.
Although students and staff are currently unable to get vaccinated on campus, the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) and Slippery Rock Giant Eagle Pharmacy have administered vaccines to those who wish to be vaccinated. Some students who work in healthcare have also been vaccinated through SRU’s partners or at their clinical sites, such as UPMC.
Director of Student Health Services Kristina Benkeser believes vaccines will eventually be distributed on campus when it is “college students’ turn” to be vaccinated. She envisions the COVID-19 vaccine being administered in a similar way to the Health Center’s flu shot clinics. AHN and other SRU partners would provide the university with these doses to administer to students and staff.
“We’re trying to determine how this is going to work,” Benkeser said in a Zoom call. “[We are in the] very initial planning stages of vaccines. The ideal would be to have vaccines readily available whenever students wanted it.”
There would be differences between the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine clinics, though. Because there is most likely a higher demand for the COVID-19 vaccine than there was for the flu shot, Benkeser said there will be stricter social distancing since there will be more people.
Students and staff would also have to schedule a time to receive their vaccine as opposed to the first-come, first-serve method of the flu shot clinics.
But, as of now, AHN and Giant Eagle Pharmacy receive doses randomly without advance notice, so it is more difficult to predict when they will have vaccines and how many people they would be able to give them to.
“The distribution of the vaccine comes in fits and starts,” Benkeser said. “So, you might start out Monday with no vaccines, by Wednesday you might receive 100 doses or a site might receive 1,000 doses. It’s not really known for advanced planning.”
Because the vaccine is currently labeled as “emergency-use,” it is classified as “experimental.”
“I think this kind of throws some people off their game,” Benkeser said. “It’s not experimental in terms of ‘Do we know if it works or not?’, it’s experimental status because it’s new, which is typical for how this works.”
Before vaccines can be mandated or required, they have to be approved by the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC), which has not yet happened for the COVID-19 vaccine. So, the university cannot require students and staff to be vaccinated, Benkeser said.
“[Being vaccinated] is heavily encouraged, but not required,” Benkeser said.
Students are advised to update their vaccine dates to the health portal so that the Student Health Center knows that a student did or did not receive the vaccine.
Based on clinical trial data, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are about 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 in people who have received two doses and were not previously infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Benkeser said this rate of effectiveness is better than the effectiveness of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. One dose of the MMR vaccine is 93% effective against measles, 78% effective against mumps and 97% effective against rubella. Two doses are 97% effective against measles and 88% effective against mumps, according to the CDC.
The ultimate goal is for the campus to return to as close to normal conditions as possible, Benkeser said, and the way to do that is through testing and vaccination of the majority of students and staff.
“The real way that we stop [the spread of COVID-19] is to vaccinate,” Benkeser said. “Because testing isn’t preventive, testing just lets us intervene earlier, but the vaccine is what actually stops disease. So ideally what we want is, when we come back in the fall, to have a large, large percentage of our faculty, staff and students vaccinated. My heart would sing with joy if we could crack close to 90%. That would be amazing coverage.”
Benkeser emphasized that students and staff would still have to wear a mask until there is a change in CDC guidelines. This is mainly because not everyone would be vaccinated, so COVID-19 could still spread, said Benkeser. She said she also believes that protocols like social distancing and restrictions on group gatherings will gradually disappear.
The CDC has recently discussed the effectiveness of double masking on their website. People can wear a surgical mask under their cloth mask as well.
“The most important thing is how tightly the mask actually fits you as well as wearing the mask correctly,” Benkeser said.