Just over one month ago, Binghamton University made the announcement that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine would be made available on campus for students and staff. When J&J injections were paused nationwide for investigation into rare blood-clotting in six of the vaccine recipients, the on-campus vaccination site was temporarily closed. On May 3, Pipe Dream reported that, despite the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision to resume J&J vaccine distribution, BU would not be reinstating the on-campus vaccination program.
As for the logic behind this decision, Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at BU, cited optimistic claims of the vaccine’s accessibility in Broome County and a survey in which just over 80 percent of the 7,000 student respondents reported themselves to be vaccinated or in the process of being vaccinated. Yarosh specifically highlighted the University’s transportation services and an abundance of local vaccine appointments as proof BU’s vaccination program was no longer necessary.
Though the University continually highlights BU’s dedication to vaccinating the student body, it seems administrators have dropped the ball yet again when it comes to transparency. Admittedly, the University upheld much of this dedication earlier in the academic year. The move from randomized selection to mandated weekly testing for all students with in-person classes was smart. However, off-campus students are not held to this standard as strictly as those living in the dormitories, whose access to certain spaces can be limited through a deactivated student ID should they miss these weekly appointments. Off-campus students need to be held to the same standard in order to ensure campus safety.
Additionally, the transportation to off-campus vaccination sites is not all that accessible, despite Yarosh’s claims. Although these sites are allowing walk-in appointments, this does not solve the issue of students actually getting to these appointments. BU does not permit first-year students to have personal vehicles on campus, so access to vaccine sites is automatically more difficult. It is important to note that first-year students are some of the most likely to spread COVID-19 within the confines of campus dormitories, which BU requires all freshmen to live in.
These rules force underclassmen to look to other transportation options, such as the BC Transit or OCCT bussing systems. The three transportation options listed on the BU website’s section on vaccinations only offer bus routes which run “minimally every hour” or require a 10- to 20- minute walk to the vaccination site from the closest bus stop. This is also a matter of safety — if BU students, especially undergraduate students with little knowledge of the Johnson City area, have to walk upwards of 10 minutes just to reach the vaccination center, these transportation routes are not accessible. It is especially inaccessible to disabled students and staff who may not be able to make this walk, with very few crosswalks and busy streets to cross. BU also advertised the vaccine appointment shuttle service as a direct route to the Johnson City vaccination center. Yet, when students go to register for a time slot, the link states that registration for the shuttle service has now closed. Yarosh declined to comment on this fact. This, along with the end of on-campus vaccinations, was met with no official announcement or explanation on behalf of the University.
All of these issues share the same underlying issue: a lack of clarity from BU administration. Though Yarosh cited 80 percent of student respondents have been vaccinated, the Student Administration (SA) claimed this number is closer to 90 percent in an April 27 Congress meeting. There is a clear disconnect between what are supposed to be trusted administrative sources for students. Additionally, these surveys did not require any proof of vaccination from students, calling the validity of these statistics into question. Though the University initially discussed hopes of seeing the entire student body vaccinated by the end of the semester, we are now led to believe that an alleged 80 to 90 percent is enough.
While BU did keep in contact with those who did receive the on-campus J&J vaccines regarding potential displays of blood clot symptoms, this attentive outreach must be extended to all BU students and staff who are now left wondering how to get their vaccines. Many students may have been counting on the convenience of a single-dose vaccine prior to returning to their families in the summer only to be left empty-handed with less than two weeks before the semester ends. This is not enough time for students to receive Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which require three to four weeks between doses and a two-week period before being considered fully vaccinated.
The University’s repeated promise to protect students means nothing without sufficient action behind it. To start, BU needs to petition SUNY systems for adequate surveillance and protective measures in the upcoming semester, the most pressing of these measures being a vaccine mandate for all returning students. Several colleges have already made this decision, and it is imperative for SUNY to follow suit. It has long been the precedent for incoming students to submit proof of vaccination against different illnesses before coming to college. At BU, all students have to submit immunization forms which include either official vaccine documentation or the signature of a health care provider stating students have received measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and meningococcal vaccines. Adding the COVID-19 vaccination to this requirement would be one of the easiest and safest ways to protect students when returning to in-person classes next semester.
For all those who cannot be vaccinated due to physical or religious reasons, BU must pressure SUNY to establish sufficient COVID-19 surveillance methods. These methods include weekly testing of all students who are unable to receive vaccines as well as consequences for those who miss testing, relaxed absence policies for students who feel sick, consistently updated campus vaccine data similar to the SUNY COVID-19 case tracker and a stockpile of rapid tests available to all students and staff who desire it. Of course, this should also include a reinstatement of the on-campus vaccination center.
The University may have fallen behind, but it can begin the process of reestablishing trust among students by calling on the SUNY system with great urgency to establish these protective measures. The convenience of an on-campus, single-dose vaccine is no small matter. Having this vaccine available may be the difference between many students being vaccinated or not prior to the fall semester. Many students may face transportation issues at home or live in areas with limited to no vaccine availability. COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Making every effort to serve our community is the hope of every student and faculty member attending BU. It is up to the University to decide whether or not this hope is misplaced.