Politics

Scott faces backlash over barring out-of-state students from Covid vaccine rollout

Gov. Phil Scott speaks at his twice-weekly Covid-19 press conference on Dec. 22, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Updated at 8:34 p.m.

Julie Koepp’s phone blew up with messages just after noon on Tuesday, and so did her summer plans. 

The news? Gov. Phil Scott would not be allowing college students from out of state to get a Covid-19 vaccine in Vermont. That meant the University of Vermont senior would have to return to her native New Jersey to get a vaccine dose, a place where she hadn’t spent more than two weeks at a time since 2017. 

Koepp worried it might be impossible for her to take time off from her job at Target to drive to New Jersey, spend at least three weeks at home to get both doses, and then complete the required two-week quarantine in Vermont when she returned.

“It’s forcing people to make choices that aren’t good,” she said. “People are mad.”

After announcing the policy at a press conference Tuesday, Scott faced a swift and aggressive backlash from college students, faculty and community members. They said the decision was not backed by science and would put college students, as well as the rest of the community, at greater risk for Covid-19. 

“There is no public health rationale for this decision,” said Liz Winterbauer, a public health instructor at St. Michael’s College. “Everyone in the state is transmitting the virus, and what we need to do right now is reduce transmission.”

Health Department officials maintain that providing the vaccines to students from other places could limit the number of doses available to full-time residents. More than 60% of Vermont’s 38,000 college students are from outside Vermont, according to the Vermont Higher Education Council’s 2019 enrollment data.

“The decisions for including or not including groups of people, or having to wait to do so are not made out of hand and are difficult choices,” said Ben Truman, a health department spokesperson. He said it could prove challenging for students who leave during the summer to get both doses in the appropriate timeline. 

“The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not in great supply in Vermont and is being prioritized for hard-to-reach populations,” he said. 

Scott chalked up the decision to ensuring “we take care of Vermonters first.” 

In a statement from his office Wednesday evening, however, Scott appeared to backtrack and moderate his stance. Students who were staying in Vermont this summer would, in fact, be eligible, an aide clarified. 

Discussions on the topic are “ongoing,” spokesperson Jason Maulucci said in the statement. “The Governor has repeatedly said he hopes and expects to make vaccines available to all people in Vermont, including all college students.”

Meanwhile, infection rates among young Vermonters and college students are surging. About half the state’s active cases are among people who are under 30. The University of Vermont reported 80 new cases last week. Health Commissioner Mark Levine expressed concern that the United Kingdom variant may be spreading among that population. 

Bochu Ding, a senior at Middlebury College and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, said the decision didn’t actually reflect good public health practices and wasn’t clear to students. “The residency requirement feels arbitrary — how it’s defined and how it’s going to be enforced,” he said.

Ding and other Middlebury Campus editors stayed up into wee hours of the morning crafting an “emergency editorial” in which they decried the vaccination policy as a “shortsighted, illogical and dangerous restriction.”

“It’s a slap in the face to college students, especially students who love Vermont and want to stay here permanently,” he said in an interview. 

Some students who qualified under other criteria — students of color and people with underlying health conditions, for instance — didn’t know whether they were still eligible to get a vaccine, Ding said. It was unclear whether students in off-campus housing counted as state residents or if those who would graduate in May and stay in Vermont were eligible.

“It’s crazy because residency means they live here. They do live here,” said Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, whose district includes the college.

College students who hail from other states are allowed to vote in Vermont and are included in the census count that determines the allocation of vaccine doses. “To deny them the ability to get those vaccinations that are counted as part of our community, it’s discrimination,” Hardy said. 

Sociology professor Jamie McCallum posted on Twitter encouraging students to use his home address to register for a vaccine appointment. McCallum clarified that the tweet was “less an act of mutual aid and more political.” He didn’t actually expect students to use his address, he said. 

States have taken a variety of approaches in vaccinating their college students. Massachusetts has involved universities as key parts of the state’s distribution plan. Schools such as UMass Amherst and Northeastern University have rolled out mass vaccination clinics for the public and for every student. Rutgers in New Jersey recently announced it would be requiring vaccines for its students who want to return to campus this fall. The state would vaccinate all its students, regardless of where they’re from.

“A number of higher education institutions in other states have been able to make Covid vaccines available to all their students,” Enrique Corredera, spokesperson for the University of Vermont, said in a statement. He said UVM is “working with the State of Vermont to see whether we can help facilitate such an approach here.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said last week that he would not allow students from other states to get a vaccine. “If you’re a resident of Colorado but you’re going to school here, no, you cannot get the vaccine,” he said at a press conference. “You can go to Colorado and get the vaccine for Colorado residents but will not qualify for the vaccine here.”

Such policies will have ripple effects across entire communities, said Winterbauer, the public health instructor. 

The more chance the virus has to spread, the more likely it will be to mutate and create more virulent strains, she said. 

“We should be looking at the data … who is driving the majority of the transmission and try and get vaccine to those people” — including young adults, Winterbauer said. “From the public health perspective we need to to do everything we can to try and stop this pandemic.”

Koepp, the UVM student, said many of her co-workers at Target were college students from outside of Vermont. They all would have to go home for a vaccine and likely wouldn’t have the time off to quarantine, she said. “It’s causing so much unnecessary cross-state travel,” she said. 

It feels unfair and unwise, Koepp said. 

But she said UVM students’ passion for activism means that the Department of Health likely has not heard the end of it.

“Students are very passionate,” she said. When they’re upset, “they’ll be making it very known.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Liz Winterbauer‘s name and misidentified her title.

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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