Wheaton College hosted a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Coray Gym on August 23, coincidentally the same day the Pfizer vaccine received full approval from the FDA. Student Health Services partnered with the DuPage County Health Organization and a faith-based health system, Amita Health, to provide a first dose of the vaccine to 17 students.
Beth Walsh, the director of Student Health Services, said that the clinic was an effort to provide vaccines to students who do not have cars on campus or easy access to a clinic.. Students who received their first dose at the August clinic will receive their second dose on September 16, plans to deliver second doses on September 16. Another clinic is scheduled for October 7.
“We at Student Health Services know of several situations of people who went home to international locations over the summer that would really want to get the vaccine once they got back to the US, so we felt starting the year with that would be really beneficial to that subgroup and I feel like they took advantage of it,” said Walsh.
SHS is planning more clinics in the winter, potentially even to administer booster shots. Since booster shots are recommended approximately eight months after the second dose according to the CDC, these clinics would most likely operate before Christmas break or early into the new year.
The college’s COVID-19 dashboard reports that approximately 78 percent of students and 80 percent of faculty and staff are vaccinated. Those who remain unvaccinated are required to participate in a weekly saliva-based COVID-19 test.
Wheaton’s vaccination rates are consistent with some of the other schools in the Christian College Consortium. George Fox University in Oregon currently has a 75 percent vaccination rate among students and 90 percent among faculty. Gordon College has a 70 percent rate among students, according to a survey. As of September 2, 51.4 percent of Illinois residents are vaccinated. The nationwide average is 53.7 percent.
Though the COVID-19 Leadership Team has not required students and faculty to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, they are strongly encouraging students to do so through the on-campus vaccination clinics. Walsh, a member of the COVID-19 Leadership Team, said that the college hopes students will choose to get vaccinated to protect the immunocompromised on campus and ensure continuation of in-person and full capacity operations.
“We wish some more of our unvaccinated students would get the vaccine, but the reason we’re not requiring it is that we understand there are lots of reasons why people choose not to get it,” said Walsh.
Keeping with the national pattern, many students have voiced strong opinions about their decision to get vaccinated or not. While some were hesitant to get the vaccine, others were enthusiastic.
Sophomore education major Claire Green explained that she got vaccinated because her parents are both healthcare workers, and she believes the vaccine is trustworthy.
“I think that science shows it’s safe and effective. Plus, we all want to get this over with,” said Green. She emphasized how she wanted to be able to travel this past summer and how she would feel most safe doing so if she were vaccinated in the spring.
Freshman Jessica Price said that she was eager to get vaccinated in order to protect her mother, who is at-risk.
“I wanted to get vaccinated so that I could feel good about going to school and participating in social activities while keeping my mom safe,” she explained.
While 78 percent is a large majority, there are still many students who elected to remain unvaccinated for various reasons.
Sophomore communications major Olivia Issakainen cited two main influences behind her decision not to get the shots: a fear of potential long-term side effects and the relative newness of the technology utilized by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which employs messenger RNA that teach the body how to make proteins that fight the virus.
“I’m not anti-vaccines; I just want to be in control of what I put in my body and when,” she said.
A freshman who wished to remain anonymous also weighed in about her decision not to get vaccinated.
“I don’t know enough about [the vaccine] yet,” she said. “I also have heard of side effects like blood clots and I don’t know if it’s worth the risk.”
On August 26, Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker reimposed a state-wide indoor mask mandate that applies to private and public K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities, and added a vaccine requirement for employees and students. Those who aren’t vaccinated must submit to weekly testing under the new mandate.The mask and testing requirements align with the August 9 revision of the college’s rules, which require all students and employees to be masked indoors regardless of vaccination status. The college also enforces weekly saliva-based testing for unvaccinated students.
“We believe all undergraduate students have provided the necessary vaccination proof and attestation, and we are already conducting the necessary testing required under the latest state guidance,” said an email from the President’s Office on August 31 in response to the governor’s order.
The email also announced that the college’s indoor mask mandate will be maintained “indefinitely” due to the order, rather than being reevaluated at Labor Day as originally communicated.
Despite the continuation of the indoor mask mandate, the college has elected to loosen some of the stricter COVID-19 rules that were imposed for the 2020-2021 school year. Indoor mandatory chapels have resumed after a year-long absence. Most classrooms are back to full capacity. The plastic walls that divided tables in Anderson Commons have disappeared.
This semi-return to normal will be maintained as long as COVID-19 transmission on-campus and in DuPage County remains relatively low.
As of September 2, the online COVID-19 dashboard reported that 26 total students were in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. Since classes began on Aug. 25, cases have spiked from 6 positive cases reported on August 29. DuPage County has seen a 7-day average of 198 new cases a day, in large part due to the spread of the Delta variant on a national level, and widespread vaccine hesitancy.
Walsh acknowledged that the debate around vaccinations can be contentious at times and encouraged students to exhibit Christian love to those with differing opinions.
“We have a heart for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be polarizing. We can love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s our unifier.”
Wheaton College, IL
Correction 9/5/21: This article originally said that as long as DuPage County cases stay “relatively low,” the current state of restrictions will remain the same. DuPage County transmission is in fact currently recognized as high by the CDC.