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Montana University System not requiring vaccinations, but strongly encouraged

(Daily Montanan) Students won’t be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine to study on one of the Montana University System campuses, but they can get a $10 gift card per shot from Town Pump if they do — or $20 for a Johnson & Johnson — said Helen Thigpen, with the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

“Obviously, we’re aware of campuses taking that approach,” said Thigpen, executive director of government relations and public affairs, of the vaccine requirement. But she said the Board of Regents isn’t mandating vaccinations at this point. “They’re strongly encouraging it in every way possible.”

A Washington Post story Wednesday said universities mandating coronavirus vaccines are mostly on the East Coast. It noted Indiana University, with more than 100,000 students and employees, will require the vaccine as a way to return to normalcy. 

Thigpen also said vaccinations wouldn’t be required for employees. The direction to campuses was coming from the Board of Regents, she said, and she did not believe individual schools could make decisions to be more strict.

However, she also said the Montana University System is closely monitoring the pandemic’s progress as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are also mindful of recent legislative action and executive orders regarding vaccine requirements in Montana, as well as the lack of formal authorization of the COVID vaccine by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” Thigpen said in an email Wednesday. “Presently Covid vaccines are authorized under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA, which allows for the emergency use medical products in emergencies to protect public health.”

The regents set policy for the Montana University System. However, this year, the Montana Legislature approved a bill that prevented any governmental entity from withholding educational opportunities, among other goods and services, based on a person’s vaccination status. The bill, House Bill 702, also prevents employers from refusing employment based on a person’s vaccination status.

When the pandemic hit, colleges switched to remote instruction, and some faculty even held classes outdoors. This year, campuses took steps toward normalcy, such as holding commencement in person. In May this year, the Commissioner of Higher Education removed the mask mandate for the Montana University System.

The vaccination rate of the campuses wasn’t available this week, and Thigpen said it wasn’t easy to track. However, last year, at least one campus, the University of Montana, often tracked a lower COVID-19 infection rate than Missoula County at large.

This week, the former head of the FDA said the country could experience another spike in infections in fall 2021 with the transmission of the contagious delta variant if enough people don’t get vaccinated. A New York Times tracker counts 66 percent of adults having received at least one shot; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health states herd immunity requires at least 70 percent of the population to be immune.

Although subject to change, Thigpen said the current plan is that Montana State University, UM, and MSU-Billings offer the vaccine on campus on a regular basis. She said the other campuses don’t have a specific health clinic but may offer the vaccine on campus as part of an event, such as orientation, and likely in collaboration with their public health department or other entity.