The coronavirus pandemic is the public health crisis of our lifetime:

1. 140 million cases and 3 million deaths worldwide, toward 32 million cases and 600,000 deaths in the United States, and 950,000 cases and 12,414 deaths in North Carolina.

2. It is accelerating, “The world did not record one million deaths until Sept. 28, 2020, but there were 2 million by Jan. 15, some four months later. And the third million took just three months.” NYT, April 17, 2021.

3. Caused a fall of 3.5 percent of GDP last year, the sharpest in the U.S. since World War II.

On April 12, the Appalachian State University Faculty Senate voted to approve, 30 in favor, two opposed, two abstentions, the following resolution:

“The Faculty Senate requests, for the safety of the community, that any controlling body: The Legislature, the Governor, Department of Health and Human Services, President Hans, the UNC Board of Governors and/or the Administration of Appalachian State University require all students returning in the fall semester to have been vaccinated against the coronavirus prior to their return, allowing for religious and medical exemptions.”

How the university tackles the COVID-19 crisis affects Boone, Watauga County and surrounding communities, so we write to explain the importance and feasibility of this measure.

What we know from the disease is that some people come in contact with the virus and nothing happens, others get sick, from lightly to severely, and some die. While some initially show no symptoms, they go on to develop long-term COVID-19 syndrome, with extreme fatigue, pain and trouble breathing. The numbers in all these cases are in the millions

Following the outbreak, the world scientific community went to work, quickly recommending social isolation, distancing and face masks, and soon creating effective vaccines. The medical and scientific consensus is to mandate masks and vaccinations. If you take a walk on King Street in Boone or Main Street in Blowing Rock, one-third to two-thirds are not wearing masks. With about a third of the U.S. population opposed to vaccines, voluntary is nice but mandatory is what works.

At the university, many classrooms lack windows or windows that open, so air does not circulate well. Classes meet for 50 minutes or more, and in such a closed space and in that time, one infected person would share the virus with everybody in the room. Some will not get sick, some will and some might die. The obvious solution is to require vaccine use by everybody on campus.

Can this be done? This is where it gets tricky. Schools throughout the country require student vaccinations. North Carolina mandates them for measles, mumps, polio and other diseases. ASU does the same. Simple public health. With vaccinations already required, there is an existent path for that. These vaccines, however, have full federal Food and Drug Administration approval. The COVID-19 vaccine was developed rapidly and in response to crisis, so was authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization authority. The EUA does not prohibit requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of being in the classroom. Importantly, it provides that students and others may refuse to be vaccinated. In the absence of a clear prohibition, ASU should follow the example of other leading universities including Duke in North Carolina and Rutgers, a state university in New Jersey, and require vaccination as a condition of being in a classroom, since, 1., they should err on the side of safety and health, and 2., the university can provide alternatives (online instruction) for those who decline.

Required or not, experts agree that the requirement issue will be settled in the courts. ASU probably cannot avoid the courtroom whatever path it chooses, but one path will minimize illness and deaths, the other won’t. UNC system President Peter Hans believes the EUA doesn’t allow a vaccine requirement, so he is not implementing one, nor is ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts. Other university leaders, as seen above, disagree and have taken a “safety first” stance, requiring students to get vaccinated in order to return to campus. In the U.S. Constitution, in “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” life comes first for the obvious reason that without it, the other two don’t exist.

In the current partial reopening of the ASU campus, many students have contracted the disease and one, enrolled in classes last semester and living in Boone, got sick and died. Given the numbers and trajectory of the disease, it seems probable that full reopening of the campus in the fall will bring more infections, illnesses, and perhaps deaths, which is why full vaccination is necessary.

The EUA is contested terrain, of that there is no doubt. The disease is ubiquitous and deadly, of that there is also no doubt. Whatever the UNC system and ASU choose, mandating vaccinations or not, the lawyers will get their day in court. Without the mandated vaccine, though, the numbers of sick and possible dead will increase substantially, and the dead, unlike the lawyers, will not get their day in court.

The Watauga County Health Department has to date done a terrific job of making the vaccine available. It is free. And students who don’t want it can have access to alternative education where they don’t have to go to campus. The App State Faculty Senate resolution serves the purpose of informing the chancellor, Hans and other authorities that a path to vaccination exists and can and should be implemented. If they do that, health will be preserved and lives saved. If they don’t, health will be seriously jeopardized and lives may be lost again.

The App State Faculty Senate is on the side of preserving health and saving lives and we hope our leaders, Everts and Hans will come to agree with us.

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By Leigh Dunston, Executive in Residence and lecturer, Dept. of Finance, Banking and Insurance, Appalachian State University, and Jeffrey Bortz, professor of History, Appalachian State University.

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