Education

Area universities tell students, staff to mask up, but only Duke is requiring vaccinations

Posted July 28, 2021 8:36 a.m. EDT
Updated July 30, 2021 1:16 p.m. EDT

— Duke University officials announced Wednesday that everyone, even vaccinated people, will be required to wear face coverings indoors, starting Friday.

Right now, only unvaccinated people have to mask up on campus. The mask requirement applies to students, staff and visitors in all Duke-owned or -leased buildings except on-campus residence halls. The change in policy comes from a spike in coronavirus cases in North Carolina and concerns over the virus' Delta variant.

North Carolina reported 2,633 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, which is the highest one-day total in five months. The state is now averaging 1,925 new cases a day, which is about the same as a year ago.

A statement posted by Duke officials on Wednesday said the university has seen a "steady rise" in the number of coronavirus cases on campus.

The move comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors in public spaces in areas where the virus is surging.

"While we know this is a disappointing turn, we make this move now based on the latest recommendations from the CDC and Duke’s own infectious disease experts in hopes of containing potential outbreaks that may limit our ability to continue other activities during the fall semester," the announcement states.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill already has an indoor mask requirement, and North Carolina State University officials said they plan to enforce one during the fall semester.

Duke students said they are frustrated by the new mask requirements but understand the reasoning behind it.

"It’s obviously not what anyone would hope for in the grand scheme of things, but it definitely seems necessary, given the CDC guidance and given the case rate in North Carolina," rising sophomore Connor Booher said.

"We were really hoping that we could shed the masks ... so it’s scary and disappointing in the sense that you don’t want to believe [it]. You want to believe that COVID is a thing of the past, but obviously, it’s not," rising sophomore Zoe Tishaev said.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke Health, said he anticipates coronavirus cases will continue to rise, and requiring masks indoors is an effective way to limit that.

"A mask is a very simple thing we have learned to do well," Wolfe said. "Masking in a school context – and we can argue if that includes college – is a strategy that is effective."

In addition to the mask rules, Duke also is requiring any student setting foot on campus this fall to get vaccinated before returning for the fall semester. Officials said about two-thirds of students and more than 80 percent of employees have been vaccinated.

None of the UNC System campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, require vaccinations. Rather, they encourage vaccinations and exempt students who have had their shots from requirements such as routine virus testing.

UNC President Peter Hans told chancellors in April that only the state Commission for Public Health can add any vaccinations to those required of students under state law.

"Because the University of North Carolina is an agency of the state, the university must comply with state law and cannot substitute its own judgment for that of the commission," Hans wrote in a memo, adding that such a requirement could ramp up vaccine hesitancy among some groups.

In a recent editorial in Science magazine, former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp wrote that colleges nationwide need to mandate vaccines.

"Officials at universities and in government need to take a stand, regardless of the political consequences for the institutions. Lives are at stake," Thorp wrote.

UNC-Chapel Hill student Greear Webb said students already have to be vaccinated against a number of viruses, and coronavirus should be added to that list.

"I’m just a little perplexed as to why this is any different," Webb said. "Again, the burden is falling to the students to protect ourselves."

Student Isabel Coyne agreed, saying she fears another campus shutdown. Last August, UNC-Chapel Hill administrators shifted all undergraduate classes online and ordered students to leave campus after a spike in infections during the first week of classes.

"There’s just too many students who will either not be vaccinated, or it will be unclear," Coyne said. "We’re college students. Kids are going to break the rules sometimes. It happened last year; it’s going to happen this year."

Tishaev said she's glad that Duke has a vaccination requirement in place.

"I think more schools need to make the switch," she said. "I think it’s just common sense. We know that the virus isn’t going to go away if people don’t get vaccinated."

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