Following nearly a yearlong effort to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine in December 2020, a hopeful note to the end of a dark year. That month, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts initiated Phase 1 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, and the first doses were administered to health care workers and long-term care residents and staff. Since then, some members of the Tufts community have sporadically become eligible for vaccination — first, health care workers at Tufts Medical Center, and later, first responders, including the Tufts University Police Department and Tufts Emergency Medical Services.
Still, a significant portion of the Tufts community remains ineligible for vaccination. In addition to lower-risk portions of the student body, this group also includes individuals whose positions put them at greater risk of contracting the virus — among them resident assistants, dining workers and custodial staff. Additionally, some of Tufts’ neighbors in Medford and Somerville may face greater exposure to the virus due to their proximity to a college campus. When the vaccination process moves forward and Tufts is able to distribute vaccines in the phases to come, it is critical that Tufts embrace an equitable strategy that gives as much access as possible to communities who are put at risk by the university’s day-to-day operations.
Tufts has been approved by the state to distribute vaccines as part of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Program, according to an email sent to the community by University Infection Control Health Director Michael Jordan on Feb. 1, though a later email on Feb. 18 clarified that Tufts does not currently have vaccines. But when Tufts is able to begin distribution, it will have to follow the state’s rules, which involve a plan consisting of three phases. The first, which lasted from December to February, made health care workers, first responders and those at long-term care facilities eligible for vaccination. Currently, the state is mid-way through Phase 2, which grants eligibility to seniors, people with certain medical conditions and workers in select industries. Finally, Phase 3, when the general public will be eligible for vaccination, is expected to begin in April.
For a college student who is young, healthy and occupied with a mostly-online course load, waiting for the state to move forward in these phases will be a mild inconvenience. But for community members at a higher risk, the matter is a more urgent one. Dining workers and custodial staff, for instance, who are not yet eligible for vaccination under the state’s current guidelines, work in close proximity to large numbers of students every day. In addition, RAs are responsible for enforcing COVID-19 guidelines, a position that can put them near students who aren’t complying with masking policies. Tufts must prioritize these groups for vaccination in the policy that it adopts.
It is also important that Tufts cooperate with its host communities, whose residents are just as entitled to vaccination as Tufts students. If, before the end of the semester, Tufts is able to begin vaccinating the general student body, the university should offer its resources to local residents living near campus as well. Tufts reopened for in-person classes this fall in spite of significant local opposition, and it should make overtures to compensate for the risks it brought with that decision. Offering testing services to the local community has been a good start to that process of reconciliation; offering vaccine services would be even better.
In deciding who is eligible for vaccination, the state’s policies will always have the ultimate authority. This, however, doesn’t mean that Tufts cannot take action before Massachusetts enters Phase 3. Tufts is part of the trade group the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, which has lobbied the state legislature on issues such as universities’ budgets and development plans. While lobbying does not necessarily guarantee success, Tufts and its trade group should try to flex their political muscles and fight for these communities with the same fervor they’ve brought to issues affecting university finances.
Even if Tufts is unable to enact legislative change to support these vulnerable communities, there are other ways the university can equitably distribute the vaccine. Each time the state enters a new phase, Tufts should directly reach out to the most vulnerable of its eligible students and employees before resorting to a first-come, first-served basis among all who are eligible. Though RAs may technically become eligible at the same time as the rest of the general public, Tufts should try to directly offer some of the earliest doses to RAs, rather than making them compete with students who are in safer positions.
Tufts, like every other institution in the world, is operating with a great deal of uncertainty over what the coming months will bring. For this reason, we do not expect the university to have a definitive timeline for its own vaccination process. What we do demand is that our university commit to upholding principles of equity throughout that process. Some populations in the Tufts community are at greater risk than others, and any equitable distribution process should account for these varying levels of need.