College students, the vaccine, and looking towards fall

By Emily Kim

Approximately 12,000 college students are participating in a new national clinical study called “Prevent Covid U,” designed by researchers at the COVID Prevention Network and endorsed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The study will investigate whether or not the Moderna vaccine effectively curbs asymptomatic virus transmission, building off of earlier studies that demonstrate its potency against severe symptomatic disease. 

Why college students specifically? Since the start of the pandemic, colleges have been hotspots for Covid infections. Dr. Holly Janes, professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and one of the leaders of this study, states that “high-density housing, the impulse to socialize and less severe of severe disease in young people are all factors that contribute to the high burden of SARS-CoV-2 infection on college campuses.” Furthermore, according to another Fred Hutch professor and study leader Dr. Elizabeth Brown, “colleges are model settings for studying transmission of infection, given that they are relatively closed populations.”

Study participants must be healthy individuals between 18 and 26 years old who have not yet been vaccinated, and they will be administered the vaccine in two cohorts. Half of the participants will receive the Moderna vaccine immediately upon signing up for the study, while the other half will receive the vaccine four months later. For the five months of the trial, all participants will be required to conduct daily, self-administered nasal swabbing; complete health questionnaires through EDiary; undergo regular, school-sponsored Covid testing; and provide blood samples on occasion. 

What makes this study particularly unique is its “emphasis on following close contacts of those who acquire Covid-19 in the trial,” says Principal Investigator of CoVPN Operations and study leader Dr. Larry Corey. This means that the participants’ friends, coworkers, and housemates will all be getting involved as well. Researchers plan to have roughly 25,000 close contacts track their symptoms via EDiary and conduct daily nasal swabbing for two weeks — regardless of whether the main participants actually test positive during the trial. Close contacts will also continue to get tested through their school programs and possibly submit two blood tests each for further analysis. There are 21 US universities participating, including the University of Washington, University of California San Diego, Northwestern University, and the University of Virginia, among others.

12,000 college students will get vaccinated as part of this study. But how many others have been vaccinated? Excluding high-priority individuals with underlying health conditions or working an essential job, most students have simply been waiting. But now that more states have increased vaccine eligibility to those 16 and up, more can get the jab. Many schools have encouraged their students to get vaccinated as soon as possible and are doing whatever they can to facilitate the process. For example, UC Berkeley’s University Health Services is sending codes to eligible students that will allow them to make appointments at the Oakland Coliseum mass vaccination site. The University of Arizona is vaccinating students on-site at their own university POD, or Point of Dispensing. Students at the University of Rochester can get vaccinated at the University Health Center, regardless of whether they are permanent residents of New York. Schools are making the vaccination process as simple as possible in hopes that students follow their recommendation, but once again, for most schools, that’s all it is — a recommendation to get the jab.

However, a handful of schools are mandating students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall, motivated by the desire to reach herd immunity within their school and ultimately a “return to pre-pandemic normal.”  Rutgers University was the first to make this a requirement, and slowly but surely, more schools are following suit. Most recently, Duke and Northeastern joined Rutgers University, Cornell University, and others in requiring vaccinations for the 2021-2022 school year. There are limited exceptions for religious or medical reasons.

It’s likely that more schools will join in on this trend in the coming weeks. But as schools teeter cautiously between a vaccine “recommendation” or “requirement,” there’s one thing they can be certain about: the vaccines are working. And with the jab in hand, schools may be one step closer to returning to the holistic, on-campus experience that people know and love.

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