Vaccine mandate at UBC: students and public health experts clash

With in-person classes set to begin in September, UBC is making a list of what will be necessary to keep everyone safe. But, a vaccine mandate will not be included, which has left some students concerned.

The university expects that a majority of students will have received both doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine by September, but there have been calls to ensure this is the case via a vaccine mandate.

Other Canadian universities have taken this approach.

The University of Ottawa (U of O) recently announced that vaccination will be required for students to live in student housing this coming year, along with Western and the University of Toronto, among others. Seneca College in Toronto has gone the extra mile by mandating full vaccination to attend classes.

There is considerable support for such a mandate from UBC students.

“Not mandating this vaccine [means] that there will be students who choose not to get the vaccine. That’ll lead to higher infection rates, it’ll spread more,” one student told City News 1130 in June. “I’m going back to university because I have to, but I’m definitely not going to feel very comfortable with it,” said another.

Members of student leadership have also supported a vaccine mandate in residence. Senator Julia Burnham expressed a desire for a mandate in a July 15 tweet following the U of O announcement.

Last week, AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Eshana Bhangu and President Cole Evans sent a letter to UBC demanding that vaccines be mandated in residence, as well as masks in large lecture halls.

“The student union, representing all 56,000+ undergraduate and graduate students, strongly believes that the University must do more than the bare minimum to ensure that we have a safe return to campus,” the letter reads.

However, UBC has pushed back against calls to mandate vaccines.

“It has been recommended that post-secondary institutions do not introduce prevention measures that are different from those recommended by the Provincial Health Officer,” wrote UBC Director of Media Relations Matthew Ramsey in a statement to The Ubyssey.

“UBC will not be making COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for students, faculty or staff, nor will UBC ask members of the campus community to disclose their vaccination status.”

According to Ramsey, UBC intends to strictly adhere to provincial health guidelines, meaning that if masks and vaccines are not mandatory elsewhere in the province, they will not be mandatory on campus.

UBC reiterated these sentiments in a response to the AMS’ letter.

Vaccines have never been mandated

According to the BC Ministry of Health, the reason for not requiring vaccines is simple: BC doesn’t have mandatory immunization programs.

This goes for any vaccine, whether it be against COVID-19, measles, meningitis or any other preventable illness. Instead, all vaccinations are strongly encouraged by science, government and society.

“While government cannot dictate exactly how organizations choose to operate, there are legal implications that organizations should consider,” wrote a Ministry of Health spokesperson in a statement to The Ubyssey. “Vaccines are our ticket to a return to normal and we encourage everyone to get the vaccine – but it is not mandatory.”

Instead, the province — and by extension UBC — strongly recommends immunization against COVID-19.

This is the right approach, according to Toronto-based family doctor and vaccine researcher Dr. Iris Gorfinkel.

Gorfinkel, an expert in medical policy, argues that mandates requiring the use of any vaccine do not fit with the free will-based values held by many Canadians.

“The society we live in greatly values individual freedom,” said Gorfinkel in an interview with The Ubyssey. “Ultimately, you’re not going to change the thread of the society that we live in.”

Rather, Gorfinkel feels that strong recommendations are more likely to appeal to the better senses of those hesitant to get vaccinated and be more successful as a result.

“The best I can do is try to appeal to people and understand, if they are vaccine hesitant, what is the reason for that,” she said.

The Ministry of Health has acknowledged that it has made pandemic-related decisions based on the same rationale as Gorfinkel: that strong recommendations are more likely to evoke compliance than mandates. Furthermore, the ministry argues that requiring immunization records on campus violates medical confidentiality.

UBC has only deviated from PHO guidelines once, requiring the use of masks on campus two months before the province-wide mandate was introduced.

Even if UBC and province have research-backed reasoning for refusing a vaccine mandate, Board of Governors Student Representative Max Holmes feels that the university could improve how it communicates this reasoning to students, particularly when compared to other universities.

Holmes believes that he and many other students are wondering why the university will not independently review its vaccine policy when the resources exist to do so.

“There are students that are worried about their safety, and I think we have to take that seriously,” he said. “I think the university has to put forward some good answers for why it's taking the positions it is.”

However, Holmes acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all vaccine mandate will not work for everyone.

He recommended that students who are medically unable to be immunized be placed on fully-vaccinated floors — theoretically creating herd immunity in residence — and that other precautions, such as masks and better ventilated classrooms, should be under consideration. Gorfinkel agrees.

Regardless of strategy, Holmes believes that greater consultation is necessary.

At this point, it’s unlikely that UBC will deviate from its position on vaccine mandates. Still, Holmes hopes for more.

“I think that we're going to have to get to some point where we do have a solid plan that we can try and portray some confidence in. But we've got to have serious engagement of the ideas and issues that people have.”