COVID-19 vaccine requirement must accommodate international students

Administrators announced earlier this month that community members must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to return to campus in the fall. Public health experts believe vaccine requirements are the best way to limit outbreaks and establish herd immunity, making the mandate undoubtedly a smart move to ensure the community’s health and safety next semester.

Ensuring GW community members are vaccinated also preserves the safety of the University’s surrounding local community because outbreaks on campus can affect neighboring residents too. But administrators’ decision to only accept vaccines authorized for use in the United States may create unnecessary barriers for more than 4,000 international students, faculty and staff from more than 130 countries.

For the requirement to be fair, officials must help international students with no control over the types of vaccines they have access to find and make vaccine appointments. Administrators should also consider partnering with D.C.-area jurisdictions to directly distribute vaccines to students upon arrival in the United States and provide housing accommodations for them to quarantine if they’re unable to get vaccinated before the fall semester begins.

Officials promised to “exercise discretion in enforcing the mandate for those who have extenuating circumstances that are beyond their control and that will cause delays in vaccination,” but it’s unclear exactly what expectations they have in terms of when and how international students can receive vaccines approved in the United States. With its current guidance, the mandate assumes that everyone has access to Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson doses, and it doesn’t explain what students who received other vaccines not authorized for use in the United States will be expected to do in order to return to campus.

Vaccines like AstraZeneca, which has been deployed for use in 135 countries, Sinopharm, which is offered in 33 countries, Sputnik Z, which is available in 28, and Sinovac, which is used in 23, could all be potential options for international GW community members to receive in their home countries. The fact that GW’s mandate stipulates that international students who may already be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with the AstraZeneca vaccine, for instance, now have to also receive a full dose of, say, the Moderna vaccine, is unfair, and also potentially unsafe. Health officials are still not in total agreement regarding the possible harm of mixing and matching vaccines.

It’s also worth noting that the mandate sheds light on and exacerbates the global vaccine gap. Wealthier countries like the United States have the capacity to purchase and administer more vaccine doses than needed for their populations, while low- and middle-income countries like Haiti that have yet to report a single dose administered to their own populations have to essentially wait their turn. And even countries relying on the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income economies are experiencing delivery delays that prevent vaccine access. A study published by the Center for Global Development estimates that the whole world might not have equitable vaccine access until September 2023.

With these barriers in mind, GW must make sure international students aren’t left behind in requiring vaccines to be on campus next semester. Administrators must be lenient with the extenuating circumstances some students may face to find vaccines. At the very least, officials can provide international students with specific guidance and instructions on how to get a vaccine appointment in the D.C. area through their Colonial Health Center portals. Administrators should also create guidelines for how international students can quarantine until they’re fully protected against the virus. But to truly avoid contributing to the vaccine inequity crisis and offer a sustainable solution for all community members, GW should try to get approval from D.C.-area jurisdictions to directly vaccinate students, faculty and staff. It’s unfair to expect international students to jump through ridiculous hurdles to be able to enjoy a normal, in-person semester like everyone else without taking either action to help.

Sarah Trebicka, a junior majoring in international affairs and Spanish, is an opinions writer.

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