Students express concern over new requirement

Dr. Edward P. Junkins, Director of University Health Services, informed students via email of updated COVID-19 vaccination policies, which mandate the bivalent booster for all students by March 1, 2023. After that date, a hold will be placed on non-compliant students’ accounts, making them unable to register for classes for the fall 2023 semester.  

The November 14 email stated that “a high rate of vaccination is critical to combat COVID-19” and asserted that the university’s existing vaccination requirement is the cause of “extremely low case rates throughout the fall semester.” 

The bivalent booster mandate comes on the heels of mandates from various peer institutions, including Harvard University, Yale University, and Fordham University

The mandate applies to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, including students studying virtually or doing research remotely but does not apply to faculty or staff. Tyler Castle, a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, noted this discrepancy in a statement for the Rover:  “Based on available evidence about Covid, the risk that current strains pose to young people is extremely low, and much higher for those who are older or who are immunocompromised.”

St. Joseph County currently has a roughly 61 percent vaccinated population, but only 31 percent of the county has received a booster according to The New York Times. The hospitalizations during the fall 2022 semester peaked at an average of 45 hospitalizations per week for the whole county. Average daily cases peaked at 80 for the county; both of these peaks occurred in the first week of the semester. In five semesters of testing from fall 2020 to spring 2022, Notre Dame did not report a single hospitalization of a student.

Castle questioned why “in light of these realities … Notre Dame [would] mandate the booster only for those who are least vulnerable to Covid and most susceptible to the vaccine’s side effects.”

Fellow Ph.D. student Rick Cassleman also highlighted new and changing scientific evidence about the vaccine. In a statement to the Rover, he said, “The understanding of the science of the bivalent booster has evolved, and I haven’t heard anything from the university discussing the change, particularly in the context of a risk-benefit analysis for healthy college-aged students.”

A perspective essay in the New England Journal of Medicine raised this point as well: “Booster dosing is probably best reserved for the people most likely to need protection against severe disease—specifically, older adults, people with multiple coexisting conditions that put them at high risk for serious illness, and those who are immunocompromised.”

Kristin Shrader-Frenchette, the O’Neill Family Professor Emerita in the Department of Philosophy and Department of Biological Sciences, in an email to the Rover agreed that “the booster effectiveness can be short-lived and is unnecessary for healthy young college students.” 

Still Shrader-Frenchette said, “Criticizing ND’s bivalent-booster mandate is questionable, because … the mandate helps people who are immunocompromised, such as older ND faculty/staff, who have pre-existing health conditions, like the 9% of college students with asthma; or who are members of racial and ethnic minorities at ND – all of whom bear a greater death and disease burdens from COVID.”

Casselman and Castle, however, both noted that they believe vaccination is morally permissible and was rightly encouraged at the height of the pandemic but stressed the importance of free choice in medical decisions. Castle highlighted “there are credible reports of serious (though rare) side effects from the vaccines, including myocarditis—especially among young men.” Castle, therefore, asks whether “Amidst these uncertainties, does it make sense to force students to receive the booster?” 

Casselman clarified that “listening to [his] peers, [his] major concern is that students are being forced to undergo a medical intervention that they are not comfortable with.”

Such forced medical intervention is explicitly prohibited in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, which was published in December 2020. It states, “Practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

While the note allows for vaccination as it promotes the common good, Merlot Fogarty, a junior theology and political science student, does not believe vaccination is necessary for the common good at Notre Dame. 

“The circumstances of the pandemic when vaccinations were first allowed, and the circumstances of the country, the state, and the tri-campus community now are completely different,” Fogarty told the Rover. She continued, “refusing the vaccine now will not unnecessarily risk the health of others in the community; in fact, continuing to receive vaccines, especially against your will, will only perpetuate big pharma’s ability to profit off of abortion.”

The abortion debate is a central focus of the Vatican’s remarks because each of the vaccines available at the time used cell lines from aborted fetuses in testing, development, and production of the COVID-19 vaccines to varying degrees. While the Vatican permitted use of these vaccines, the note emphasized that at all times, pharmaceutical companies must be encouraged “to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience [italics original].”

Castle asserted that “as a Catholic university, Notre Dame should take seriously the moral dilemma around these vaccines” and calls for the university to allow all students “to make their own health decisions” regardless of whether they are religiously affiliated or have a specific medical need.

Still, Cassleman praised the university’s expansive religious exemption policy saying, “I think Notre Dame is a leader in this regard and other institutions should model Notre Dame’s approach to religious exemptions. The feedback is not all negative; they balance concerns of conscience with concerns for health and safety very well.”

The University of Notre Dame would not be alone should she choose to alter or drop the bivalent booster mandate altogether in light of these questions. Tufts University, after mandating the bivalent shot in September 2022, modified their requirement. This joins with several other institutions rolling back COVID-19 vaccine requirements in light of new and evolving science and considering the decreased risk COVID-19 poses to college-aged students. 

 Lauren Douglas is a sophomore theology and Program of Liberal Studies major in the Glynn Family Honors Program. When she’s not watching rom-coms, baking in the Farley kitchen, or wading through pages of PLS books, she can be found discussing the merits of various Jane Austen adaptations. Please send any Austen commentary—or questions, thoughts, or concerns—to

Photo Credit: Lauren Douglas