RALIEGH — The N.C. Commission for Public Health denied a petition from UNC-affiliated universities requesting that all 17-year-old seniors entering the college system be vaccinated against COVID-19. The action occurred at the commission’s Wednesday, Feb. 2 meeting. At the same time, groups called Citizen Advocates for Accountable Government and Moms for Liberty held a protest outside the state Division of Public Health’s building along Six Forks Road in Raleigh.
Dr. Ronald May, chair of the NCCPH, said after hearing from legal counsel and those on the commission, he didn’t believe they have the legal authority to require vaccinations for universities. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services sent a memo last week urging the commission to hold off acting on the petition.
“You are being asked to amend your immunization rules to include a provision that would require individuals 17 years of age or who are entering the 12th grade, whichever comes first, to receive the COVID 19 vaccine,” said John Barkley, assistant AG and counsel for the commission. “You are going to consider whether it is in the best interest of public health to move this proposal through the rule-making process.”
Barkley said they could have approved the petition, but it wouldn’t go into effect today. A public hearing and comment period would have to be held and then the commission would meet again for a final vote. The other options would be to deny the petition or take no action either way. He said the petitioners can appeal the denial through judicial review, which would go to a Superior Court judge.
The N.C. Commission for Public Health received the petition, sent by four staff and faculty members of Appalachian State University. N.C. Department of Health and Human Services sent a memo urging the commission to hold off on further action regarding the request, which includes 237 signatures of staff and faculty affiliated with ASU, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and UNC-Charlotte.
“Requiring the vaccine for high school students, as we propose, may well be premature,” said Stella Anderson, professor, and spokesperson for Appalachian State University. “We do not believe the requirement for the state’s four-year college students is premature.”
Anderson and colleagues submitted the petition based on a recommendation from UNC System President Peter Hans that the system must defer to the commission because it lacked the legal authority on its own to initiate a vaccine requirement. She said they are asking the commission to implement a rule requiring a vaccine beyond high school for admission to the state’s four-year colleges and universities if they have the authority, or if not, let them know so they can proceed on their own.
She noted that several private universities and colleges in North Carolina have begun implementing the requirement in the fall of 2021, and there are examples in other states.
“From our perspective, the requirement for North Carolina four-year college and university students is overdue,” Anderson said. She cited App State’s vaccination rate for fully vaccinated students was at 52% in August 2021 and reached 80% at the end of January.
“We speak from personal experience as educators that the vaccine is needed for general safety and in its absence, it is extraordinarily disruptive to all campus operations,” she said. “It’s crucial to remain on campus.”
“My perception is that the commission can’t require vaccinations for college students,” May said. “It can require certain vaccines for K-12 students. The commission doesn’t have the authority or legal ability to require vaccines for college students alone.”
Barkley agreed and said they could face a challenge if they went with a college requirement.
Dr Kelly Kimple, chief, Women’s and Children’s Health Section of DHHS, reiterated the position stated in the department’s memo last week, that with vaccine information still evolving it is premature to change vaccination requirements at this time but could be looked at in the future.
“There is a high incidence of side effects in children and adolescents, myocarditis, etc., that we wouldn’t be making a wise choice to make the least affected population of this country to have the most stringent requirement,” said NCCPH member Gene Minton. “I think we should recommend vaccinations to all people they apply to. There are no long-term studies for young people.”
“I strongly believe in people’s personal freedoms, said Dr. Michael Riccobene, an NCCPH member, who announced that he is vaccinated and boosted. “I have chosen not to vaccinate my children. I think every parent and adult has the right to choose whether or not they receive the COVID vaccine. I do not think it is in the best interest of the public to take away that right.”
May said he is a strong proponent of vaccines, but now is not the right time to address this issue.