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Judge Weighs UConn’s Vaccine Policy For Students

Jimmy Emerson
Creative Commons

A lawyer representing three University of Connecticut students asked a judge Thursday to prevent the school from requiring students to get the coronavirus vaccine ahead of the fall semester.

During a hearing in federal court, attorney Ryan McLane argued UConn failed to provide clear guidance around its vaccination policy for students, and applied it arbitrarily by excluding faculty and staff.

Under a policy adopted by trustees in June, students participating in any on-campus activities must be vaccinated or seek an exemption, which allows them to attend with heightened health and safety requirements, such as wearing masks and undergoing regular testing.

More than 90% of students have complied to date, though 771 asked to be exempt for non-medical reasons, such as religious belief or personal discomfort with the vaccine, according to information disclosed by the university in court.

As of July 23, UConn’s dean of students had granted 504 non-medical exemption requests. Decisions were still pending in the remainder. An additional 55 students requested medical exemptions, which were also under review.

Lawyers for the university have pointed to the approval rate for exemptions as evidence the suit should be dropped, saying the three plaintiffs can simply request permission not to be vaccinated, as two have already done.

Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer seemed to give credence to that argument Thursday, saying any potential harm the students face from the vaccine requirement appears “imminently reparable” through the exemption process.

Meyer also questioned whether the vaccine requirement is a significant burden, since alternatives are available for students who don’t want to get the shot.

“The president of UConn is not grabbing any students by the arm and jabbing them with a vaccine, right?” he said. “UConn is simply saying that if you wish to be a residential member of this community as a student, there’s a vaccination requirement, or apply for an exemption.”

Assistant Attorney General Mary Lenehan, representing the board of trustees and President Andrew Agwunobi, argued the school’s policy does not violate the rights of students to refuse medical treatment because it isn’t a mandate.

Lenehan added the school has not ruled out requiring faculty and staff to get vaccines in the future, noting those employees are largely covered by collective bargaining agreements, which require the school to negotiate any new vaccination requirements.

“The university has to weigh the individual interest in not receiving a vaccine against the community interest in protecting the members of the UConn community,” she said, “particularly the residential community, where people are living in a congregate living setting, where the CDC and other health organizations have decidedly concluded the risks of COVID exposure and infection are much higher than in other settings.”

All other state schools in Connecticut have instituted vaccine requirements for the coming semester, as have Connecticut College, Quinnipiac University, Sacred Heart University, Trinity College, University of New Haven, Wesleyan University and Yale University, according to a list maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The plaintiffs in the UConn lawsuit include a returning sophomore and the mother of an incoming freshman from Manchester, and a third student from New Hartford who is transferring into UConn's Allied Health Sciences Department, according to court filings.

The students allege procedural and substantive due process violations, lack of informed consent, and civil rights violations. They seek a preliminary injunction to prevent the school from enforcing the vaccine policy before students return at the end of August.

Since filing the lawsuit, two of the students applied for and were granted non-medical exemptions. Court records show they cited personal concerns that include doubts about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, and the risk of potential side effects.

According to the CDC, the vaccines currently in use in the United States are safe and effective, and serious problems among those who get vaccinated are rare. Nationwide, more than 351 million doses have been administered to date.

In an announcement Thursday, UConn said 94% of students who will be living on the Storrs Campus have been vaccinated, and 97% have complied with its vaccine policy by either providing proof or requesting an exemption.

Judge Meyer took the arguments under advisement Thursday and asked the parties to file additional documents addressing how they interpret legal precedent established in a previous case. He's expected to render a decision on the request for an injunction before students move in Aug. 27.

Jim Haddadin is a data journalist for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer for NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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