ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: ISU takes cautious approach on COVID-19 vaccinations

This editorial was originally published June 25 in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.

Fittingly, Indiana State University officials did their homework in preparing a COVID-19 vaccination policy for its students and employees. Such a task is not simple.

As the world knows, the response to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States — the nation’s gravest health crisis in a century — is hamstrung by politics. Colleges and universities across the country are just the latest entities to tiptoe through the gauntlet of politically tinged backlash. Many have received stiff pushback to their laudable plans for a safe return to a more normal on-campus atmosphere for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year.

The Hoosier state stands as Exhibit A in that situation.

Fifty-five miles east of ISU, Indiana University initially announced it would require students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or see their class registrations canceled and jobs terminated. Exemptions were provided for religious and medical reasons. Such a stringent policy is understandable, given that more than 90,000 students from across the globe, as well as 17,000 employees, occupy its eight campuses throughout a state that ranks 36th nationally in the percentage of fully vaccinated residents.

Indiana Republican legislators and the state attorney general quickly denounced IU’s policy requiring proof of vaccination, and declared it a violation of a newly passed law against “vaccine passports.” IU soon modified its policy to make proof of vaccination optional. The university also faces a lawsuit by eight students, filed by prominent conservative attorney James Bopp Jr.

Ninety-seven miles north of ISU lies Purdue University, where its president — former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — and his team crafted a savvy vaccination policy that appears to have slid through the state’s new restrictions on vaccine passports. Purdue’s plan strongly encourages students and employees to get vaccinated, but leaves it optional. Still, those who decide not to show proof of a vaccination must undergo frequent COVID-19 testing. Purdue is also offering a year’s free tuition to 10 students, chosen by lottery, who show vaccination proof.

Here in Terre Haute, ISU has leaned toward Purdue’s strategy. That is a pragmatic approach in a state as red as Indiana.

Indiana State will not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations this fall for its students and staff. ISU is asking those folks — which include nearly 10,000 students and 1,500 employees — to voluntarily submit proof of vaccination and encouraging all to be inoculated.

ISU will keep those vaccination verifications private, but will use them to help the university and Vigo County Health Department to conduct necessary contact tracing. One of the strongest tools in preventing the spread of the contagious virus, especially in a setting with nearly 12,000 people closely interacting day after day, is contact tracing. It helps alert people who have been exposed to an infected person.

Those who show proof of vaccination will also no longer have to complete ISU’s Sycamore Symptoms assessment in 2021-22, or be required to quarantine after exposure to someone who has tested positive, or be required to wear a mask in public spaces.

“The university is prepared to return to near normal operations for the fall semester,” ISU President Deborah Curtis told the board of trustees earlier this month.

COVID-19 has claimed more than 600,000 American lives since its emergence in March 2020. Lax responses threaten to harm the health and lives of thousands more — especially with the rise in coronavirus variants — when cold weather drives people back indoors this fall. The highly effective gamut of vaccines can prevent such a surge and bring the pandemic to an end.

Given that threat and the political dynamics, ISU has taken an educated approach to confronting this stage of the pandemic and providing a return to a semblance of normalcy on campus.