On Aug. 23, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first COVID-19 vaccine to gain the agency’s approval, there was a rush of new vaccine mandates across the country.
The Pentagon, Disney World and CVS joined the list of corporations and government agencies that will require employees to be vaccinated. The State University of New York System, the University of Minnesota System and Louisiana State University announced that they would become the latest institutions of higher education to require students and staff to be vaccinated.
At the University of Tennessee, there were even murmurs of a potential reversal to the policy of optional vaccination on campus. Officials at the University of Tennessee System and in the Tennessee House of Representatives have a stark message for those on campus who are wondering if there will be a new vaccine mandate: There will be no vaccine requirement at UT.
In a statement to the Daily Beacon, Melissa Tindell, UT Director of Communications, said that System leadership had made a final decision about a vaccine mandate last January, which was not contingent on FDA approval, unlike the University of Minnesota or at LSU.
“In January, the UT System announced it would not mandate the vaccine for a variety of reasons,” Tindell said. “In the interest of public health, we strongly encourage all faculty, students and staff to receive the vaccine as soon as they are eligible. The UT System will continue to monitor COVID numbers to determine if additional measures are needed.”
Throughout the spring, UT System leadership was secretive about the exact reasons for not requiring the vaccine.
Then, on May 25, Gov. Bill Lee signed House Bill 13, which prohibits the governor, a state agency or any “political subdivision” of the state from requiring vaccination against COVID-19, into law.
The bill makes an exception for students at public institutions who are studying and participating in the healthcare fields of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy.
State Rep. Jason Zachary, Republican representing the 14th District in Knox County, was one of 83 Tennessee House members to vote yes on House Bill 13. He says that the UT System, as a governmental entity, falls into the broad category of a “political subdivision.”
Even if the UT Board of Trustees wanted to amend the immunization requirement to include the FDA-approved vaccine, state law would prevent it from doing so.
“The University of Tennessee by law will not be allowed to require a vaccine, no matter if it’s FDA approved or not,” Zachary said. “We’ve already addressed that, so that’s not something that could happen on the University of Tennessee campus.”
Quoting James Madison and the U.S. Constitution, Rep. Zachary made a case for a limited government approach to public health.
“We as elected officials have a responsibility to protect the freedom, the liberty, the unalienable rights of all Tennesseans,” Zachary said. “Our Tennessee state constitution specifically addresses liberty, right of conscience, certain things that aren’t even addressed specifically in our federal constitution.”
Zachary opposes an outright requirement, which he believes could pave the way for the revocation of other liberties in the future, though he does think it is “fantastic” if individual Tennesseans want to get vaccinated.
His concerns, which echo those of his constituents, range from personal liberty to inconsistent messaging from experts to the impossibility of fighting what he believes is a synthetic virus with traditional methods.
“There should be no point where government steps in and says, ‘you have to put something in your body against your will,’” Zachary said. “Whether you’re republican or democrat, it should concern you when government says ‘you must do this, you must put this in your body to gain entrance into this facility.’”
Contradicting the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee legislature is only one concern for UT leadership where a vaccine mandate is concerned. Examples from other universities demonstrate the legal quagmire that would inevitably result from a mandate, even a mandate in a healthcare education program, which is permitted under HB 13.
At Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), a nursing student named Avery Garfield has filed a lawsuit against the university's nursing program for its vaccine mandate. Additional lawsuits have been filed against public university systems in various states such as California, Massachusetts and Indiana, the latter of which made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before being denied review.
According to State Rep. Gloria Johnson, Democrat representing the 13th District in Knox County, the Republican supermajority is nowhere close to favoring COVID-19 vaccination requirements of any kind.
“There’s no appetite with my colleagues in the supermajority for any sort of vaccine mandate anywhere that I have heard,” Johnson said. “They’re actually against it, and from my purview, putting young people and children in danger.”
According to data from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are now around 797 campuses nationwide that require vaccination against COVID-19 for at least some of their students or employees. Johnson said that from her experience in the Tennessee legislature, UT will not join the list.
“I would love to see them come along like other states are doing, but I’ll be real honest and say, I’m not seeing any movement,” Johnson said. “They’re putting politics before our young people is what they’re doing and I’d love to see that change, but I haven’t seen any indication that it’s going to.”
For the time being, UT officials are strongly encouraging students and employees to get vaccinated. It remains to be seen if this strategy will be enough to prevent a large outbreak on campus and a potential return to virtual instruction.