DHS hopes social pressures boost vaccinations of UW students as Republicans mull a ban on mandates

    UW-Madison's University Health Services. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    Wisconsin health officials are hoping the draws of campus social life — parties, sporting events, student organizations — will be enough to encourage COVID-19 vaccination for students as universities largely get back to normal operations. This strategy of social pressure comes as Republican legislators consider a bill that would prohibit University of Wisconsin officials from mandating vaccines and after UW System administrators expressed skepticism about a vaccine requirement. 

    So far, nearly 40% of Wisconsinites ages 18-24 have been vaccinated against the virus — far from state officials’ goal of 80%. But people in that cohort weren’t eligible to be vaccinated until late in the spring. Department of Health Services (DHS) Deputy Secretary Julie Willems van Dijk said at a media briefing Tuesday that state officials hope  the summer break is a good time for students to get the shot. 

    “The other motivation I think for university students is the privileges that will be available to them if they are vaccinated versus if they are not vaccinated,” Willems van Dijk said. “So our university partners are thinking about how quickly they’ll open up campus life, as students have come to know it over the years, and what level of vaccination is necessary in order to do that.” 

    Willems van Dijk also said DHS is working with the UW System to make sure there is a robust supply and enough opportunity for students to get vaccinated on campus. 

    She added that when students became eligible, it was the end of the semester so they may have delayed getting vaccinated in order to avoid the possible side effects while studying for final exams. 

    There are some concerns about the return of fully operational campuses because students living in dorms are packed into close quarters sharing rooms and bathrooms. Private universities in the state — including Marquette University, the state’s largest private school — have already announced that they will require students to be vaccinated. 

    Incoming college students at the state’s public schools are already required to provide records of the childhood vaccines they received growing up. 

    But Republicans in the state Legislature are pre-emptively moving to prevent vaccine mandates at UW Schools. A bill introduced in late May would prohibit universities from requiring students to get vaccinated, or even requiring  COVID-19 tests in lieu of vaccination. A public hearing was held on that bill on June 2. 

    UW administrators have also already signaled they won’t be mandating vaccines. Earlier this spring, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said it was possible that students who don’t get vaccinated would have to continue the required testing protocols that were in place this year. 

    With a few months before students move in, Willems van Dijk again reiterated that the draw of a more normal college experience may be enough to encourage vaccination. 

    “So really encourage people to get those vaccines done so that life on campus can be much closer to what you had hoped when you first enrolled at the University of Wisconsin System campus,” she said.

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    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.