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Colorado universities requiring COVID-19 vaccine — why they can and what exemptions are offered

Colorado universities requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, why they can and what exemptions are offered
Posted at 10:06 PM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 11:47:12-04

DENVER — If campuses are the final destination for eager college students across the state, a vaccine clinic will be the first stop on the way there for many.

Earlier this month, Fort Lewis College announced that they'd require vaccinations for students returning in the fall. On Tuesday, the University of Denver (DU) followed suit.

Kalena Johnson, a rising sophomore at DU, said she believes vaccinations will pave way for a more normal college experience after acclimation difficulties for her and many of her peers.

"It was pretty tough. I moved from the dorms to back home because it was so hard to get a standing and meet people here," Johnson said. "If we do have all those vaccinations, I bet we will have more opportunities to open up."

Some of her peers agreed.

"It makes me feel a little bit more comfortable knowing everybody else is vaccinated," Dylan Vapp said.

"I think it’s a good idea that they’re doing it because I know that they’re doing everything they can to open up campus for next year," said Justin Lefkowitz, another DU student. "They’re giving out vaccines here, too, so it just makes complete sense."

DU, in partnership with National Jewish Health, has been offering vaccination clinics on campus.

"We have offered over 22,000 vaccinations on campus. We have offered on campus vaccinations to our entire community, which is over 18,000 people, and we have been able to support that with our partnership with National Jewish Health," said Sarah Watamura, DU's COVID-19 response coordinator.

In addition to the university's testing capabilities, Watamura said vaccinations were the next step in their strategy to get more of the student body back on campus.

"We gave careful consideration to the current conditions globally and the seriousness of the pandemic and the consequences of COVID-19 and also to our ability to be in-person and to have a vibrant in-person experience," she said. "We are integrating vaccinations so we can integrate more people on campus and have many more in-person activities together."

Watamura said the university is still determining vaccine requirements for remaining campus members.

"We’re in discussions right now about requiring vaccinations for faculty and staff, and we expect to make an announcement about that decision sometime next week," she said.

DU plans to announce possible exemptions soon, too.

"We have a small group looking at the legal, medical and ethical considerations that would weigh in to which exemptions for medical, religious and personal beliefs we will accommodate," Watamura said. "We are looking into those, and we should be able to make that announcement about which exemptions we will allow before May 1."

Fort Lewis College in Durango was the first in the state to announce that they'd be requiring vaccinations for students. Faculty, however, are not required.

"At present, many of our faculty and staff are already vaccinated with great partnership from the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes here in southwest Colorado. We've been able to vaccinate about 80-85% of our student-facing faculty and staff who throughout the year have kept us open," said Tom Stritikus, Fort Lewis College president.

By requiring vaccines for students, the college hopes to eliminate some of the mitigation protocols, such as masks and social distancing.

"It's hard. It's difficult on students to really enjoy the campus and enjoy college life in the way that would help them be successful. So by having a requirement, we increase the chances that we can return to the thing that we love about Fort Lewis college," Stritikus said.

Vaccination requirements during the era of COVID-19 is a growing trend for both public and private institutions.

On Thursday, the nation's largest four-year public university system, California State University, announced that they plan to require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall for all students and faculty members using campus facilities.

Iris Halpern, of the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm, said the public institutions that set requirements will likely have broader exemptions.

"You know, there’s going to be health, religious exemptions and under Colorado law. There’s actually exemptions for personal beliefs, which is a little broader than the religious and health exemptions that you typically see," Halpern said.

Though some exemptions may be expanded in Colorado, Halpern said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has set clear guidance on what exemptions people can't use.

"'I don’t believe the pandemic is real,' etc. — those are not going to be protected by the EEOC," Halpern said.

None of the students that Denver7 spoke with had concerns about the vaccine requirement. The DU encourages anyone who does have concerns to reach out to covidcoordinator@du.edu or the chancellor's office.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.