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High COVID-19 Vaccination Rates on College Campuses Can Aid a Return to Normalcy

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Key Takeaways

  • A large number of U.S. colleges are requiring that students get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • According to a new study, high vaccination rates are necessary for a return to normal campus activities.
  • Colleges with vaccination rates higher than 90% may return to normalcy with minimal additional measures, like masking and asymptomatic testing.

As students across the United States go back to school this fall, a modeling study found that a high COVID-19 vaccination rate will be the strongest determining factor of campus safety. 

The study authors from Yale School of Public Health say colleges with vaccination rates higher than 90% may return to normalcy with minimal additional measures (such as physical distancing, masking, or testing). 

A Closer Look at the Study

The researchers developed a model using a modified "susceptible-exposed-infected-recovered" (SIER) framework for a hypothetical population of 5,000 students, faculty, and staff living and working within close proximity on campus. The model took into account all factors facing college administrators, including the natural history of COVID-19 illness and the availability and accuracy of testing. 

David C. Munson, Ph.D., RIT President

Large institutions, including universities and their students, have a special responsibility to take action together on behalf of the broader community.

— David C. Munson, Ph.D., RIT President


The findings, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, show that if a college can achieve a 90% vaccination rate, campus activities can be resumed safely while keeping COVID-19 cases below 5% of the population—without requiring routine testing of asymptomatic people.

However, if the vaccination rate is only 50%, either daily asymptomatic testing or a combination of less frequent testing and other measures (like masking and physical distancing) would be needed to keep cases below the 5% level. 

If college administrators don’t have broad vaccination coverage or frequent asymptomatic testing, masking, and distancing, they are putting students and staff at risk of infection, say the authors.

Creating a Safe and Healthy Learning Environment

Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of the social distancing brand Give Space, agrees that a high vaccination rate should be the primary goal for all colleges. 

"The most important thing that colleges can do in meeting their responsibility to provide a safe and healthy learning environment is to require vaccinations," she says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) has provided guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses and recommends vaccination as the first line of defense. The guidelines detail ways institutions of higher education (IHEs) can tap into university and community resources to promote all prevention measures, should vaccination not be a requirement. 

“Mask wearing indoors, promoting social distancing and hand washing, and ensuring a clean and healthy environment by the continuous cleaning of building surfaces and ventilation, are important,” says Winner. 

Carol Winner, MPH

The most important thing that colleges can do in meeting their responsibility to provide a safe and healthy learning environment is to require vaccinations.

— Carol Winner, MPH


New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) currently has a vaccination rate of 96% (as of September 9). “We hope to move this number up,” says RIT President David C. Munson, Ph.D. 

To encourage students, faculty, and staff to comply with campus COVID-19 policies, RIT issues frequent internal communications, always taking care to explain any changes. Students who don’t comply with the policies may be referred to the student conduct process and are subject to a range of penalties, up to and including dismissal.

“I am pleased to say that our compliance system has barely been tested because our students have been so diligent in following the rules,” Dr. Munson says. 

An Ongoing Public Health Crisis

For Winner and Dr. Munson, it's all about safety—not only for the on-campus community but also for everybody they interact with off-campus.

"We are facing a public health crisis, not a set of individual health crises," says Dr. Munson. "Large institutions, including universities and their students, have a special responsibility to take action together on behalf of the broader community. The message is simple: Get vaccinated!"

Health promotion campaigns to keep students and faculty informed on policy, plus providing easy access to the COVID-19 vaccine, are critical to keeping campus-wide and community level infection rates low, says Winner. "However, the best insurance in protecting the health and safety of our kids, their teachers, and the local community, is by requiring vaccination, period," she adds.

What This Means For You

Getting vaccinated before going back to college will help protect you and the most vulnerable members of your community (both on and off campus) from serious illness from COVID-19.

Students who don't get vaccinated will have to comply with their college's safety policies, which may include frequent asymptomatic testing, masking, and physical distancing. If students breach these rules, they may face serious penalties.

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Article Sources
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  1. Paltiel AD, Schwartz JL. Assessing COVID-19 prevention strategies to permit the safe opening of residential colleges in Fall 2021. Ann Intern Med. 2021. doi:10.7326/M21-2965

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education. Updated July 23, 2021. 

  3. Rochester Institute of Technology. RIT COVID-19 Fall Semester 2021 Dashboard. Updated September 9, 2021.