A Seton Hall faculty group has published a 'letter of concern' regarding the University’s reopening plans for the fall semester, calling for an enforceable vaccine mandate and an indoor masking requirement.
The letter, made by the Seton Hall advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) with guidance from virologist Dr. Brian Nichols, was sent to the Health Intervention Communication Team (HICT), Provost Katia Passerini and University President Joseph Nyre on Wednesday. Nichols, an Associate Professor of biology and Director of graduate studies at Seton Hall, has been cited by the University as a researcher on coronaviruses.
“While vaccines remain the best means to prevent infection and severe COVID-19, emerging reports indicate that, in certain cases, vaccinated people may be capable of spreading the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2,” the letter said. “We believe that we need a return to campus that ensures the safety of all members of our community as well as of the families of staff, faculty and students.”
The debate comes as cases of COVID-19 are increasing, including so-called “breakthrough” cases in vaccinated individuals. There is currently conflicting data on the effectiveness of vaccines against the Delta variant, according to Healthline, but it appears vaccinated individuals may be able to spread COVID-19.
The AAUP’s letter called for indoor masking mandates regardless of vaccination status, saying that the United States has failed to reach the 70% vaccination rate goal outlined by the Biden administration.
Currently, 58% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated, though over 70% of those over the age of 18 have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
HICT acknowledged the need for more vaccinations in an email to the community on Thursday, but said that the University’s vaccine data suggests that vaccination rates on campus have already surpassed Gov. Phil Murphy’s new goal of “80-85 percent” vaccination.
Over the summer, the University unveiled its “confidential vaccine declaration,” which requires Seton Hall community members to declare their vaccination status. The results of that declaration, according to HICT, suggest that 85% of students, 89% of staff and 95% of faculty are fully vaccinated.
The AAUP continued their call for an enforceable vaccine requirement, and argued that the University has no accurate data on what percentage of the University community has been fully vaccinated.
In their Thursday update, HICT defended the reliability of the vaccine declaration’s data.
“The confidential vaccine declaration is not a survey,” the email said. “Rather, it is an official attestation of vaccination status.”
HICT said that they analyzed the declaration's data and found it “highly reliable” when compared with the State of New Jersey Immunization Information System vaccination database. It is unclear what this analysis entailed.
Further, the letter from AAUP suggested that even if the declaration data is reliable, high vaccination rates may not be enough to protect those who cannot get vaccinated, such as the children of faculty members. Currently, no vaccine is authorized for children under 12 years of age.
“Given that the Delta variant is causing increasing symptomatic cases in young children and that in certain cases, vaccinated individuals may spread the new variants, mask mandates are necessary to further reduce the risk of transmission from SHU employees to their children,” the letter said.
“Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Psychology for example have class sizes ranging from 120 to nearly 200 students in the fall,” the AAUP said. “If 14.3 percent of that population is not planning to get vaccinated, that means between 17 and 29 students in each section are at significant risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.”
The University implemented a temporary indoor mask mandate on August 2, with the measures lasting “at least two weeks.” HICT said Thursday that they “will provide an update to the requirement next week.”
HICT said that it is working on contingency plans for the fall semester.
On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a vaccine pass program, marking a pivot towards stricter vaccination mandates and away from universal masking requirements. 55 percent of the City is fully vaccinated, according to City data.
In South Orange, where Seton Hall’s main campus is located, 70 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, according to New Jersey Department of Health data.
Daniel O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @itsDanOConnor.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to the confidential vaccine declaration process as 'anonymous,' but in reality, University officials are aware of the identities of those filling it out and can follow up on exemption requests. The Setonian apologizes for this error and has updated the article accordingly.