Biden backs university Covid mandates as governors clamp down

US president follows higher education associations in condemning Republican bans on public health measures such as vaccination and face coverings

August 4, 2021
Athens, Georgia - August 20, 2020 During the COVID-19 pandemic on the first day of the Fall semester, students in protective face masks gather at a crossing light in front Bolton Dining Commons at the University of Georgia.
Source: iStock

Joe Biden has joined US higher education leaders in condemning Republican governors who have blocked mandates for Covid vaccines and masks in settings that include colleges and universities.

At least 13 US states have forbidden a requirement to show proof of vaccination in various public settings, and several of them have barred requirements for the wearing of masks.

They include Florida and Texas, which together account for a third of all new Covid cases in a nationwide resurgence of the disease in a country with plentiful supplies of vaccine but a widespread unwillingness to use it.

“The most extreme of those measures,” Mr Biden told a White House briefing, “is like the one in Texas that say state universities or community colleges could be fined if it allows a teacher to ask her unvaccinated students to wear a mask.”

“We need leadership from everyone,” he said as the Delta variant of Covid is spreading across areas of the US with low vaccination rates. “And if some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it.”

Mr Biden issued the call a day after the leading US higher education associations issued a joint statement making a similar demand.

The state-level restrictions are “dangerous” and “directly contradict” the expert medical guidance put forth by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the groups, which included the American Council on Education.

“State actions that prevent the use of established and effective public health tools at the same time as Covid-19 cases increase is a recipe for disaster,” they said.

The statement was organised by the American College Health Association, which has recommended that US campuses require the vaccination of all students coming this autumn.

The CDC reported over the weekend that the US is seeing about 72,000 new cases a day, a single-week increase of 44 per cent, exceeding the peak of summer 2020. Hospital admissions increased by 41 per cent and deaths by rose 25 per cent, the CDC reported.

Those trends have led a growing number of US universities in recent weeks to announce mask mandates on top of vaccination requirements.

A federal judge last month upheld Indiana University’s vaccine requirement for its students, and experts expect institutions will win similar court cases. But the orders by governors forbidding such mandates make the situation more unpredictable heading into the autumn semester, the higher education associations warned.

The state actions “ultimately threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighbouring communities”, the associations said.

The governors of Florida and Texas, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, have joined other Republican leaders in suggesting that they personally believe in recommended Covid protections but do not want the government mandating individual behaviour.

The US this week reached the point of having 70 per cent of its eligible adults at least partly vaccinated. Several states dominated by conservative politics have reached barely half that level, although officials are reporting an increase in interest in vaccines as the Delta variant spreads.

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