College maintains flu shot policy despite state reversal

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Photo: Zhuoli Zhang

The main entrance of the Walgreens in downtown Boston.

By Camilo Fonseca, Assistant News Editor

Emerson will continue to require students to receive a seasonal flu vaccine despite the reversal of the Massachusetts policy that initially brought on the mandate, college officials confirmed this week.

The college mandate, instituted as part of a statewide directive to minimize flu outbreaks during the COVID-19 pandemic, required all students attending in-person classes to submit documentation of influenza vaccination by Dec. 31. While the Massachusetts Department of Public Health dropped the requirement on Jan. 15, citing a flu season that was less severe than expected, the college will retain the rule for the spring term.

“The Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] did change their guidance—last minute, which is always fun,” Assistant Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp said. “But it’s really important to be safe as a community and to also make sure that everyone in our community has their flu shot. So we are still requiring it, and we are thankful for everyone’s cooperation.”

Muurisepp said the vast majority of students currently on campus submitted documentation, and few applied for religious or medical exemptions.

Originally, the deadline for uploading vaccine documentation was set for Dec. 31. After that date, non-compliant students received warnings that their tap access to campus buildings—including the testing center—would be revoked until documentation was uploaded and verified. Effectively, this meant students would be blocked from moving into their dorms.

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“You will not be able to access any Boston campus buildings, including the COVID testing center and campus housing, until your documentation has been uploaded and verified,” read a Jan. 14 email from Jim Hoppe, vice president and dean for campus life, to non-compliant students. “Since documentation must be reviewed by staff of the Center for Health and Wellness (CHW), you must submit documentation into the Student Health Portal at least 72 hours before your arrival on campus.”

Despite this, Muurisepp said some residential students were able to move in without receiving their flu shots with the expectation they would be vaccinated in the coming days.

“There are very few,” Muurisepp said. “We’re working with them on a case-by-case basis to give them a new deadline—I believe it’s Feb. 1—once they leave their quarantine.”

Residential students who have not received their flu shots have been directed to the Walgreens located in Downtown Crossing. The price of the flu shots is covered as a preventative health benefit for students enrolled in Emerson’s health plan. Without insurance, influenza vaccinations at Walgreens cost $41.

The requirement was first announced by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Aug. 19. Baker said he enacted the requirement in response to concerns that a flu season outbreak would overwhelm the state’s healthcare system—already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Massachusetts was the first and only state in the country to impose a requirement; other states only mandate shots for children five and under.

In late December, the DPH postponed the deadline to Feb. 28—well after most university move-in dates—before dropping the statewide requirement altogether in January.

“Preliminary data show that this has been a mild flu season to date, presumably as people have received their seasonal flu vaccine and have been adhering to mask-wearing and social distancing due to COVID-19,” a DPH spokesperson said in a statement to The Boston Globe.

The Massachusetts DPH continues to recommend seasonal flu vaccines for all state residents, including students.

Whether the college will, in the absence of state guidance, maintain its flu shot requirement in the coming years has yet to be determined.

“Certainly we will have conversations around whether we continue this going forward,” Muurisepp said. “Will the state require it again? Will we require it? We haven’t made any decisions yet.”

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