After the state of Massachusetts announced on Aug. 19 that influenza immunization will be required for all students attending colleges or universities in the state, Tufts health officials have yet to determine students’ compliance with the order.
The state-issued regulation hopes to reduce flu-related and respiratory illness during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release. Public health officials are particularly concerned about overwhelming health care resources and are cautious of the similarity between flu and COVID-19 symptoms.
Michael Jordan, the university infection control health director, described the urgency of a flu vaccination this season.
“Getting the flu vaccine will prevent cases of flu, help save lives and preserve healthcare capacity and resources that can be deployed elsewhere, particularly against the spread of [SARS-CoV-2], the virus which causes COVID-19,” he wrote in an email to the Daily.
The order may also lead to a reduction in the number of COVID-19 tests needed, and inform health officials of the consequences of a simultaneous COVID-19 and flu infection.
“By reducing cases of the flu, our health care systems should be able to reduce the number of COVID-19 tests that would be needed, as symptoms are mostly the same. Moreover, we don’t yet know the health outcomes of COVID-19 and flu co-infection, which could present a more severe course of illness,” Jordan said.
Although university health officials have not shared the Tufts community’s current compliance rates, Medical Director of Health Service Marie Caggiano remains hopeful students will comply with the order.
“Typically, flu shots are given in late September through the month of November,” she wrote in an email to the Daily. “We are confident that students will comply – Tufts students have demonstrated their commitment to doing what’s right and taking care of each other.”
Michelle Bowdler, executive director of health and wellness services, echoed Caggiano’s statements by noting the university’s high rates of compliance for other required vaccines.
“Historically, Tufts has had very high compliance rates for the other vaccines required of students, and we would expect the same compliance with the flu shot requirement,” Bowdler wrote in an email to the Daily.
Although the Massachusetts order permits medical or religious exemptions, Caggiano suggested Tufts’ strict health policies will make it difficult for the university to approve such exemptions.
“We are very strict about exemptions, which are granted in only limited circumstances … if a student requests an exemption for medical or religious reasons, they will have to provide documentation that we will review,” she said. “Requests will not be granted automatically.”
Tufts has traditionally offered free flu shots to students through Health Service. However, this may not be possible this year, as a result of COVID-19-related guidelines.
“We’ve always taken pride in offering very robust flu shot clinics, providing vaccinations to more than 2,000 community members in any given year … Needless to say, that won’t be possible this year due to social distancing requirements,” Bowdler said.
Caggiano indicated that the university is continuing to explore different options to make the flu shot clinics available to students.
Dean of Student Affairs and Chief Student Affairs Officer Camille Lizarríbar made clear the disciplinary consequences for failing to receive a flu shot, which includes placing registration holds on students.
“We give people a range of time to [get vaccinated] … we provide ample warning that we will be placing a registration health hold on the accounts of students who don’t comply with the immunization requirement,” Lizarríbar wrote in an email to the Daily.
Caggiano suggested students get their flu vaccination between September and November. She briefly discussed the process that occurs when a student begins reporting flu-like symptoms, which are nearly indistinguishable from COVID-19.
“Anyone who presents with flu-like symptoms should be evaluated by medical providers. Health Service is prepared to provide rapid on-site flu testing, and we’ll handle each person’s case individually,” Caggiano said.
While it is premature to determine the level of compliance among Tufts students, university officials are hopeful that students will take the urgency of vaccination seriously.
Jordan emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated.
“Protecting against the flu is critical, which is why the vaccine this year takes on added importance. And just as with COVID-19, to avoid the flu we all must be vigilant about wearing masks, physical distancing, and hand hygiene,” he said.
The university’s early success in limiting COVID-19 cases on campus has increased officials’ faith in students’ commitment to protecting themselves and others.
“I anticipate that students will make sure they have been vaccinated, both for their own safety and for the safety of their friends,” Lizarríbar said.