Eastern Michigan University president Dr. James Smith announced residents in University student housing facilities will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester. WEMU's Lisa Barry talked with President Smith about the decision, which also includes a vaccine incentive program for students and EMU staff.
Lisa Barry: Eastern Michigan University is joining with other colleges in the state and across the country and mandating vaccines for some students. This is Lisa Barry and joining us now to explain this latest step is Eastern President Dr. Jim Smith. Always good to talk to you.
Dr. James Smith: Thank you, Lisa. My pleasure to be with you.
Lisa Barry: Tell us about the student vaccination mandate decision you just announced.
Dr. James Smith: Well, literally hot off the presses. We've made the decision with lots of input from individuals on our campus who are our health professionals and then working with our colleagues at Washtenaw Public Health that we're going to do a vaccine mandate for all students living in residential housing. And the reason behind that, which certainly your listeners are going to be asking about, is that congregate housing is where we've had the largest number of outbreaks throughout March of 2020 to date. And we looked at the science, we looked at where we thought we were with the spread of COVID-19. And, as we saw more and more data on the Delta variant, we just felt like it was something we needed to do. Obviously, we have a timeline that allows students to come back unvaccinated and either do a pop-up clinic with Johnson and Johnson, for example. It's a one-shot administration. You can do that on the first day. Or you could do Pfizer and Moderna. And then the required time in between would give you plenty of time to meet our September 30, 2021 mandate for vaccination clearance.
Lisa Barry: So this is not for all students, just to be clear. This is for students living in Eastern on-campus housing facilities.
Dr. James Smith: Correct. And, again, I know people will be interested in the rationale behind that. We've had very good results. We went back to them masking, all of us who are indoors. You know this from being on our campus. Everyone who's indoors now is to be masked, regardless of vaccination status, either fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or not vaccinated. We're all wearing masks. All classrooms will be wearing masks. All those in classrooms will be wearing masks. And we've had very, very low transmission. I won't say zero, but I'll say incredibly low with that technique. So, we're going to stay consistent with that technique. We're using our three feet of distancing between student seating. We're trying to get greater than three feet, hoping for six feet for faculty distance from students. And then we have the Plexiglass available to many faculty. You will have a Plexiglass slider between themselves and the students before them. So, we're trying multiple approaches, and we're trying to be as realistic as we can be about 18 days till the start of school. This is a a somewhat of an earth change for us. And, basically, the data led us to where we are.
Lisa Barry: How will people show that they're vaccinated? Will you be looking for a card, or how can they show you proof that it has been done?
Dr. James Smith: I would urge everyone to look at the message that went out today. We do have a website that tells you how to do all of this. It's easier if you follow the directions from that electronic message. But we will make the portal, the uploading process available to anyone upon request. But it does walk you through it in a pretty methodological way how to do this. And, again, as I mentioned, we'll have pop-up clinics as students are moving back. We'll have those pop-up clinics available during move-in week, during the move-in weekend, during the subsequent week, so that, if for some reason, that you've not been able to make a time or an appointment up to now, you'll be able to do that with one of the clinics on campus.
Lisa Barry: And you're also tying this to a vaccination incentive program. Can you tell us about that?
Dr. James Smith: Sure. I really kind of excited about this. It's called Vax to Win. And we have things like five thousand dollars to a student credit account. We have five students that will be eligible for that. A thousand dollar credit to student accounts. We have 20 students to be eligible for that. We have a Google Pixel Book Go, which is a thirteen point three inch computer that ten students will be eligible to win. And then, as you know, Lisa, the most important thing on campus is giving away parking. So, we'll have a free parking permit for one semester for two students to win. We also have an option for some students, about 10 of them or 10 exactly, to have a semester of free on-campus housing. And we'll do those drawings throughout the beginning of the semester, and hopefully, we'll create a little fun around a pandemic that we all wish would go away.
Lisa Barry: "Is it open to employees, too?" she asked.
Dr. James Smith: We do. We do have an employee option. Yes, we do things like one hundred dollar gift cards to the bookstore. A hundred dollars are available. Five hundred dollar payment is available for ten employees. Bookstore credits, credits for dining. If you decide that you want to go over and eat in one of the spots in the Student Center, you would have, for example, a hundred dollar credit for EMU dining facilities for employees. So, again, I hope a little bit of fun to go along with what's been a very, very long period of time. And I don't need to tell you that your listening audience. We all know it.
Lisa Barry: There's been a lot of community conversation already about when or whether Eastern was going to mandate vaccines. Now, you've got this announcement that anyone living on campus will need to be vaccinated. Part of that conversation was about state funding. Is there are you at risk of losing state funding for this decision, or can you update us on what exactly that applies to?
Dr. James Smith: Well, I've heard a lot of that discussion as well. I have to tell you that, you know, I know some folks are saying there's going to be a punishment from the Legislature for those who have done this. I think we have to let the science prevail. We have to do what our staff, our faculty who work in that health care arena tell us. We have to listen to our friends at Washtenaw Public Health. And then the unenviable job of a president is try to put all that data together and lean on his or her colleagues in their senior cabinet and make a decision. And we've made that decision. We're very proud of the work we've done to date. And we're going to move forward. I can't hedge my bets on what others might do. We're trying to do the very best for our students. We're trying to be flexible. Obviously, if a student says, "I have a strongly held religious belief, I cannot be vaccinated." We have a process for that. They said, "I have a an existing medical condition. I cannot be vaccinated." We have a process for that. So, we are being as as science-driven and as rational as we think we can be. And as my father used to say, "Then we'll just let the chips fall as they may."
Lisa Barry: If my calculations are correct, though, this only impacts about fifteen percent of Eastern students because it's for those living on campus. Are you thinking about possibly expanding it moving forward?
Dr. James Smith: I can only tell you that, and you've heard me say this before, Lisa, that one of the strengths of Eastern Michigan during the pandemic that we'll all never forget has been that we are a very nimble organization. We are not stuck in the mud and saying that rigidity is going to be our pathway. If data takes us a different direction, it'll take us a different direction, and we'll move as carefully and as intellectually as we can.
Lisa Barry: While I have this opportunity to talk to you. Eastern Michigan University President Dr. Jim Smith, I said you're just I think you said you're just a couple of weeks away from school beginning. How do you feel going into the new year with the Delta variant and the way the cases are going lately in the pandemic?
Dr. James Smith: I felt a lot better, Lisa. I'm sorry I cut you off there. I felt a lot better five weeks ago. Right, because the numbers were dwindling. And I think The Washington Post and The New York Times said, "Is this indeed the end," about maybe the Fourth of July, Fourth of July and one of their editorial pieces. And now I think, "Why did I read that?" Because it just kind of makes me feel worse. Yes, we have great students. We have great faculty. We have great staff. We've had tremendous compliance with all of our regulations to date. So, I have no reason to believe that we won't roll out well in all that we do. But the tension is a little higher than it was July 4th, 5th, and 6th.
Lisa Barry: It's been pretty quiet on campus. So, you're at least looking forward to students returning in classes taking place in person?
Dr. James Smith: Oh, we're anxious to have students back, of course. You know, I think when I walk across campus and I don't see students, I realize why I'm in this business. You know, I love to interact with our students, as well as do our faculty and as do our staff. But we've been able to get people to graduate with online coursework and hybrid coursework, and we're proud of that as well. But, certainly, we're excited to have people back--faculty, students, staff alike.
Lisa Barry: The announcement from Eastern Michigan University President Dr. Jim Smith that residents in university student housing facilities will be required to be vaccinated by late September. And we always appreciate you talking to us here on Eighty-Nine one WEMU.
Dr. James Smith: Lisa, thank you. My pleasure.
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