The University of Minnesota Board of Regents approved a systemwide COVID-19 vaccination mandate for students in a special meeting Friday afternoon.

The university system will require the vaccine once the U.S. Federal Drug Administration fully approves a COVID-19 vaccine, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks. Currently, the vaccines are approved by the FDA for emergency use.

"The idea of mandating the vaccine prior to FDA approval caused great concern for certain members of our campus community," U of M President Joan Gabel said. "We expect that to be soon. If it's not soon, we can come to the board with a change."

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel

Under the mandate, students can request an exemption for medical reasons with documentation from a clinician as well as for religious reasons.

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All but one regent voted in favor of the mandate, with Regent Darrin Rosha, of Independence, Minnesota, voting against it in preference for a universal mandate that includes university employees.

"I find a level of discomfort in applying different standards to different folks," Rosha said.

Gabel did not propose including faculty and staff in the mandate because employees aren't currently covered under a vaccine mandate like students are.

"In the interest of moving this forward in the shortest distance between two points, we're updating the student policy and then creating something close to parity by having faculty and staff attest," Gabel said. "There's nothing that prevents us down the road, if necessary, adding the attestation to students or adding faculty and staff to the mandate."

A vaccine policy for staff and faculty is not currently in place, though Gabel anticipates they would confirm in an online attestation that they are fully vaccinated and will get tested if exposed to someone with COVID-19 symptoms. Those who had not yet been vaccinated would have to attest to frequent testing.

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The vast majority of the U of M community is already vaccinated, Gabel said, citing data from a campus survey that asked for a vaccination status of those who responded.

"This is to close as much of the gap as possible in order to ensure that the delta variant and other variants that may be coming do not interfere with our strong desire to have the most robust fall semester we possibly can," she said.

The full vaccine plan is still under development, including certain specifics and potential consequences for those who don't comply with the mandate.

Regent and Mayo Clinic physician, Ruth Johnson, of Rochester, said the only way to have a safe year back on campus is with a vaccine mandate. While illness from the circulating, more contagious delta variant is largely preventable through vaccines, Johnson said the next variant may not be.

"I think this freedom of the individual must always be balanced by responsibility to care for our community," she said. "I believe there's a deep American ethic to support and care for our neighbors. The preamble of our constitution ... includes promoting our general welfare.”

The University of Minnesota Duluth is the only higher education institution in the Northland that will require COVID-19 vaccinations among students. Employees of Minnesota State's 37 colleges and universities will be required to be vaccinated by Sept. 8 under Gov. Tim Walz's vaccine requirement for state agency employees, or have to face weekly COVID-19 tests.

Lake Superior College is working to provide testing on campus for those who have a medical or religious reason for not getting a vaccine.

"This testing will be available in such a way that all work shifts will be able to take advantage of the testing during work hours," LSC President Patricia Rogers said in an announcement to the campus.

Employees at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College as well as all five community colleges in the Northeast Higher Education District will also have to require vaccinations of employees.