Columbia: Vaccines are mandatory for students this fall -- but so are masks and physical distancing

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

People who warn about a “forever pandemic” usually strike me as alarmist. Yeah, scientists like Fauci are overly cautious but even Fauci has a benchmark for relaxing pandemic restrictions of 10,000 cases per day or fewer nationally. (Whether that benchmark is attainable is another matter.) No one’s arguing for keeping masks and social distancing in place after we reach herd immunity. And certainly no one would be arguing for keeping them in place if the vaccine were mandatory for all Americans.

Why, it’d be insane to insist on restrictions in a population where everyone was immunized.

But what if I told you that there *are* populations, albeit small ones, where those are the rules?

Columbia University will require students and staffers to get COVID-19 vaccinations to return to school in the fall.

β€œOn the strong recommendation of our public health colleagues, who have advised us so ably throughout this process, President Bollinger and the Columbia University COVID Task Force have decided to make the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for all students who are present on campus, starting this fall,” read an email to students and staff…

Students will still be required to observe social distancing and face covering requirements after receiving the vaccine.

I found that hard to believe so I double-checked the Post’s work. Looks correct to me. From Columbia’s statement announcing the vaccine mandate:

The vaccine mandate for students will be integrated into our Columbia Community Health Compact, an agreement all students are required to sign in order to access campus facilities. The mandate will take its place alongside our testing program and public health protocols, including face covering and physical distancing. Adherence to the Compact has enabled us to maintain a COVID-19 test positivity rate of just 0.39% since June 2020.

The school’s public health protocols haven’t been updated since mid-February, so maybe Columbia’s planning to relax them for the fall semester once everyone on campus has been vaccinated. But if so, it’s curious that they didn’t mention anything about that in yesterday’s statement. As of today, wearing a face covering over the nose and mouth is required at all times while on university property. Building capacity is set at 50 percent to facilitate social distancing and “[s]ocial/physical distancing guidance requires, when feasible, maintaining 6 feet of separation in combination with proper use of face coverings.”

In other words, the standard pandemic precautions we’ve all been told to practice for the past 13 months remain in effect alongside mandatory immunizations. Why?

The CDC issued updated data about the risk of infection in vaccinated people yesterday:

Out of 84 million vaccinated people, just .007 percent or so have had confirmed cases of COVID. The total undergraduate and graduate population of Columbia in 2020 was 31,455. If the rate calculated by the CDC were to hold true for Columbia’s student body, we’d expect a grand total of two infections once everyone has been vaccinated. And given that students are typically young adults, odds would be very high that those infections would be nonthreatening.

Forget the national data, though. How about a little data from the hottest hot spot in the United States, where the British variant is prevalent and the virus is rampaging through the population?

Michigan’s rate of “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated people is three times higher than the country’s overall rate. But the vaccines are so phenomenally effective that it’s still just a tiny fraction of one percent — .02 percent, to be exact. Even in the middle of viral forest fire, those who’ve had their shots are almost completely protected.

So why is Columbia requiring vaccinations and ongoing precautions?

Possibly they’re insisting upon it to protect students who are immunocompromised or who refuse to get the vaccine due to religious reasons. How many of those there are, I don’t know, but asking the entire student body to follow “forever pandemic” protocols to protect them instead of asking the few conscientious objectors and immunocompromised people to take precautions instead (e.g., by making distance learning available to them) seems ass-backwards given the relative burdens. My guess is that it’s not really about protecting the vulnerable at all but about tribal signaling. People who Believe In Science take maximum precautions at all times, even when their risk of infection has been reduced as close to zero as it could plausibly get. We’ll see if Columbia lightens up before September arrives. I’m not optimistic.