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Western U booster mandate draws confusion, concern from students and expert

Western University said on Monday that students and staff returning to campus over the next two weeks must have at least three COVID-19 shots and wear masks in classrooms

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter

An Ontario university’s decision to require COVID-19 booster doses and masks in classrooms has prompted mixed reaction, including concerns about possible barriers for students and the tight timeline on which it was announced.

Western University said on Monday that students and staff returning to campus over the next two weeks must have at least three COVID-19 shots and wear masks in classrooms.

Ethan Gardner, president of the London, Ont., university’s student council, said the quick timeline for the policy change – which took effect Monday – is the most common worry he’s heard from students so far.

“The timeline is definitely a piece that we’re hearing a lot about,” he said by phone from London on Tuesday, noting the policy change has come as students are preparing to move for the school year, or are in the midst of doing so.

“Maybe if the information was delivered a bit earlier, it may have been easier.”

Ontario’s universities are taking varying approaches to COVID-19 vaccine mandates on campus this September. Some are not requiring vaccines, and are instead recommending students keep up with their shots and wear masks. Others have yet to spell out their policies for the fall, with little time remaining before the school year begins.

Western’s mandate goes a step further than the University of Toronto’s, which requires those living in residence to have a booster shot, and recommends all others keep their vaccinations up to date.

Gardner said his student council at Western is still collecting feedback and will be reaching out to the university for a meeting once he has a fuller picture of student concerns. Gardner also noted that some are receiving the news positively.

“There’s definitely people on both sides,” he said.

Third-year music student Zack Ferns, 20, said he appreciates the safety efforts that Western has made throughout the pandemic to protect in-person experiences on campus.

Ferns has received three COVID-19 shots, and he’s planning to get a fourth dose and wear a mask in class. But he said he understands why some of his peers are frustrated by the strict policies around boosters and masks given that such mandates have lifted in other settings.

Ontario lifted proof-of-vaccination rules in public spaces months ago, as did most other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world. Mandatory mask rules have also largely been lifted.

“I do personally try and be cautious with regards to COVID, but I also am a bit sympathetic to some of the backlash that this decision has received,” he said.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Zain Chagla said while vaccines are effective and help prevent severe outcomes, the purpose of a three-dose policy in a university setting like Western, or of its mask mandate in classrooms, is unclear to him.

“The whole thing is a little bit odd,” he said.

Chagla, who works at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said risk of severe disease is relatively low among the young adults who make up Western’s student body, and the policy doesn’t take recent Omicron infections into account.

Third-dose uptake in the 18-29 age group is currently about 39 per cent in Ontario, lower than any other adult age group. By comparison, roughly 85 per cent in that young adult cohort have two vaccine doses.

Chagla said Western’s policy doesn’t account for the fact that many people received third doses more than six months ago and may have waning immunity, he added, noting that the policy may not do much to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

He also highlighted the “downstream effects” of the policy excluding students from marginalized communities where booster dose uptake is lower.

Marie Dolcetti-Koros, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, raised a similar point.

“It is important for governments and institutions to recognize how a mandate will create barriers for international students and other folks who may not be vaccinated with Health Canada-approved vaccines or vaccinated for their own reasons,” she said in an email.

Dolcetti-Koros said her organization supports promotion of vaccines for students and is advocating for accommodations for people who aren’t comfortable returning to campus. It’s also calling for clearer guidelines from officials as pandemic-era education continues.

“Students are calling for greater leadership from the government to provide clarity on proactive public health measures that ensure all students have access to high-quality post-secondary education whether they will be studying in person or remotely,” she said.

Chagla said improving ventilation indoors, promoting vaccination and vaccine education and supporting people to stay home while sick remain effective mitigation strategies for universities and other settings.

“Those are easy things that we probably should be doing anyways,” he said. “I think those are probably what to focus on, rather than mandates and exclusions.”

Vaccine mandates have been a contentious political issue in Canada. A vaccination requirement for cross-border truck drivers was the catalyst for a weekslong occupation in the nation’s capital this winter, where people expressed anger with the government over various pandemic measures.

Some politicians were quick to draw attention to Western’s vaccine policy. Federal Conservative leadership candidates Leslyn Lewis, Roman Baber and Pierre Poilievre all posted on social media criticizing the university for its decision.

Chagla said the politicization of vaccines is a problem because COVID-19 shots, and other vaccines, will likely continue to be necessary and uptake becomes challenging when the issue is so inflamed.

“The more we push people, the more they’re not going to come back for that next dose,” he said.

Banner image: Students walk across campus at Western University in London, Ont., September 19, 2020. Concerns are being raised that Western University’s decision to mandate COVID-19 boosters shortly before the fall semester may create barriers for marginalized students. The London, Ont., university announced Monday that students and staff returning to campus must have at least three COVID-19 shots and wear masks in classrooms. Ethan Gardner, president of the university’s student council, says the tight timeline for the policy change is the most common concern he’s hearing so far. Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Zain Chagla says the purpose of Western’s three-dose policy is unclear. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2022.