From the Boardroom: No decision on vaccine mandate yet after lengthy Board discussion at September 21 meeting

At the first full Board of Governors meeting of the 2021/22 academic year — and first in-person meeting since February 2020 — governors mostly discussed return-to-campus plans and a proposed vaccine mandate as classes enter their third week.

Here’s what you might have missed.

Rapid testing, vaccine declaration verification forthcoming

In a return-to-campus update, UBC admin released more details about rapid testing, student housing and vaccinations, but did not release a clear timeline on when some of the promises would be fully implemented.

UBC had previously pledged to test all unvaccinated people on campus and mandate vaccinations in residence, but details on how this will be executed have been sparse since those announcements.

VP Students Ainsley Carry said the vaccination requirement in residence is still being worked out — despite the province mandating vaccinations in student residences just under a month ago. Many students moved into residence at the beginning of September.

“We are currently working through the vaccine requirement and how we would verify that in the residential spaces. That is in the works right now,” Carry said. Carry also announced that UBC would have its own vaccine clinic in October and November at the Student Health Centre.

VP Finance and Operations Peter Smailes said the verification part of UBC’s vaccine declaration process would ideally be launched tomorrow, pending the outcome of the Board’s conversation.

On rapid testing for unvaccinated people, Smailes said the clinic will have a “soft launch” on Monday, September 27 — 20 days after students started classes. The clinic will be in the Ponderosa Commonsblock and will be open from 8:30 to 4:30 Monday through Friday. Smailes said they’re planning to administer 3,000 tests a week.

However, only around 63 per cent of the UBC community has disclosed their vaccine status as of now — although Smailes said the estimate of 96,000 people on campus might be a bit high.

Just under 61,000 vaccine declarations have been completed — with 97.7 per cent saying they had been partially or fully vaccinated, and 1.1 per cent disclosing they were unvaccinated.

On parties held by the fraternities, Carry said the fraternities were undergoing mandatory training on public health guidelines and had agreed to stop hosting public parties.

“We did have a period at the very beginning of the term where they did have a weekend and they hosted some large events. Since then, we’ve had a conversation,” Carry said.

Board considers Senate motion to mandate vaccines

The Board of Governors also discussed the motions from the two UBC Senates on vaccine mandates with public health officials, but didn’t make any decision on the matter.

The Board invited the same three experts who spoke to the UBC Vancouver Senate two Fridays ago — Dr. Dan Coombs, a member of the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group; Dr. David Patrick, a professor at the School of Population and Public Health; and Dr. Alex Choi, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health — to share their perspective.

The experts echoed many of the same comments they made at the Senate meeting — with UBC’s high vaccination rate, and its masking and rapid testing policies, a vaccine mandate may not significantly improve COVID-19 safety on campus.

Choi emphasized that a mandate was likely not necessary to achieve public health objectives, that less restrictive measures to get people vaccinated should be tried first and that there might be equity issues around mandating vaccines.

President Santa Ono and Choi spoke of the perceived need of post-secondary institutions to implement rapid testing for “optics” reasons, as other institutions have been doing.

On the yet-to-be-implemented rapid testing policy, Choi predicted that these tests will likely only catch three or so cases a term.

“I think one of the reasons a lot of institutions are doing this is because there's so much anxiety — they needed to find ways to alleviate that. Rapid testing is one of the more visible ways to take action that I think has looked good from an optics perspective.”

Professor Anna Kindler, a faculty representative on the Board, argued for more understanding around the safety fears of people in the community and called for more transparent data.

“There has been a bit of sense that most of the empathy and accommodation has been on the side of those who would voluntarily choose not to be vaccinated, with much less empathy invested into the positions of those who feel that they are at risk because of those who are unvaccinated,” she said.

Board Chair Nancy McKenzie said they would be receiving legal advice on implementing a vaccine mandate in the closed session of the Board meeting today.

No information was provided as to when the Board would make a final decision on a vaccine mandate.

Update on Tuesday, September 21 at 8:12 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that President Ono and Dr. Choi were speaking of a perceived need to implement rapid testing as a post-secondary institution.