Kuntzman: CWRU’s vaccine mandate is undermined by current exemption policies

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Writer

On December 16th, I, like all undergraduate students, received an email informing me that Case Western Reserve University canceled all campus events. My initial response was disappointment, but I also found the email strange. It took a couple of reads to determine what about the email was off, but I eventually figured out that it was primarily one sentence: the claim that a “significant portion” of new cases were among the unvaccinated. I knew that not all CWRU students, staff and faculty were vaccinated for various religious and medical reasons. However, I didn’t think there were enough unvaccinated people to account for any significant percentage of new cases. This prompted me to investigate how large CWRU’s unvaccinated community is.  

I started my investigation by looking at the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, as this provides some useful insights into the state of COVID-19 on campus. I checked it both before and after receiving the updates for December 14-20. Several aspects of this dashboard caught my attention. The first is that while the total percentage of unvaccinated campus community members is 2.1%, these numbers vary greatly depending on a community member’s role. Rates of vaccination are equal for students and faculty, at 98.2%. This number dips down substantially for staff, at only 94.2%, with 5.4% of staff members receiving religious or medical exemptions compared to 1.2% of faculty and 1.4% of students. Based on the information provided it is unclear if this only includes people who have received no vaccines or people approved for exemptions from a booster shot only. The second aspect of the dashboard that caught my attention was when specific numbers were and were not used. The university states the number of campus community members in isolation and quarantine, as well as new COVID-19 patients every week. In contrast, CWRU only tells us percentages for the number of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. I don’t think that this is inherently wrong as this information isn’t necessarily indicative of the state of COVID-19 on-campus or as important for campus community members to know on a day-to-day basis as information about how many new COVID-19 cases there are. However, it creates a lack of transparency, especially since it is not entirely clear if these figures are just for unvaccinated people or if they include people who have not received a booster.   

The next step of my investigation included finding an estimate of the number of students, staff and faculty at CWRU. I was successful in doing so, as CWRU published its enrollment for Fall 2021 and employment statistics for Fall 2020. I did not find updated numbers for either group, so I worked with those under the assumption that the number of people enrolled at or employed by the university did not change drastically. I also acknowledge that some students have graduated from CWRU, started during the spring semester and transferred in and out of the university, so the student number also needs to be treated as an estimate. 

According to data reported by CWRU, fall enrollment for both graduate and undergraduate students was 12,069. Fall 2020 figures for faculty and staff are 3,657 and 3,144, respectively. Given that the dashboard does not distinguish between graduate and undergraduate vaccination rates, I will treat the two as one group. Faculty and staff will be counted separately, as they are shown as different groups on both the COVID-19 dashboard and the campus population numbers. Because the university provides new individuals with a 14-day grace period to receive vaccines, I calculated a separate “status unknown” figure. It is under the assumption that individuals in the dashboard’s non-compliant/grace period row will either soon be vaccinated or are vaccinated individuals who have yet to submit proof of vaccination. 

According to the data provided, the estimated total community size consists of 18,870 students, faculty, and staff. Based on current reported exemption data, there are 169 students (rounded up from 168.966), 44 faculty members (rounded up from 43.884) and 170 staff members (rounded up from 169.776) with religious or medical exemptions, for a total of 383 individuals with either complete vaccination or booster exemptions. In regards to those whose vaccination status is unknown, I estimated that there are roughly 48 students (rounded down from 48.276), 19 faculty members (rounded up from 18.864) and 13 staff members (rounded up from 12.576) for a total of 80 campus community members with unknown vaccination status. This makes for an estimated total of 463 campus community members who are or may be unvaccinated.

By percentage of our community, the unvaccinated and under-vaccinated, those eligible to receive a booster shot who have not, are not a large group. With that being said, if 186 new cases in December were enough to prompt health services to stop issuing notifications for potential COVID-19 exposures, I am concerned that the university granted so many exemptions. This is not to say that we should have a 100% vaccination rate, as I do not doubt that these exemptions include people for whom it would be genuinely unsafe to receive a vaccine. With that being said, approximately 383 exemptions seem high. According to the CDC, most people with underlying medical conditions should be vaccinated for COVID-19, making it unlikely that 383 people would need medical exemptions. When it comes to religious exemptions, data collected by Vanderbilt University found that very few religions expressly prohibit vaccination, although individual religious beliefs not endorsed by specific religious groups can still meet the legal standards to require protection. 

The final stage of my investigation was opening the religious exemption application to see what types of questions it asked. What I found inside surprised me. The questions were generally very thorough, addressing both practical concerns such as an individual’s willingness to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols, whether or not they would be on campus and if their education program includes work in a medical setting. There were also questions to gauge the sincerity of an individual’s beliefs such as asking them to explain why vaccination is a problem for their beliefs and what responsibilities their belief system has to the well-being of the broader community. In regards to the questions themselves, I was impressed. The questions seemed like a fairly effective vetting system to prevent accommodations from being abused. However, what I found disappointing was the specific language about the nature of exemptions that CWRU would grant. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn after reading the application that it was for “religious, ethical, or moral” accommodations, not just religious ones. One of the biggest problems associated with religious exemptions is that it can be hard to tell if an individual’s belief is sincere. By including other nonmedical exemptions in the “religious exemptions,” the vaccine mandate’s efficacy is undermined. Furthermore, by failing to clearly disclose the full range of approvable exemptions, CWRU fails to provide the campus community with information they have a right to know about what is or is not being done to keep them safe. 

I am not an expert on employment law. I don’t know what would hold as an acceptable religious exemption in court, nor am I familiar with all of the medical reasons that should exempt an individual from vaccination for COVID-19. What I do know is that there appear to be several hundred people at high risk for becoming infected with COVID-19 and spreading it to others. I also know that individuals unwilling to be vaccinated were allowed to apply for exemptions for reasons that were neither religious nor medical, contrary to information sent to students about vaccine requirements. Furthermore, individuals who were initially denied “religious” exemptions were allowed to reapply to avoid receiving the COVID-19 booster, which seems inappropriate given that an individual’s beliefs should not change so much over a few months to necessitate granting them a previously denied application. 

I have no way of determining the breakdown of exemptions, but I’m inclined to believe that “moral and ethical” exemptions are contributing to the substantial unvaccinated population. Keeping campus safe during COVID-19 is a collective responsibility that by no means falls exclusively on university policymakers. Still, we as members of the campus community should be able to expect policies that minimize risk and promote honest communication as to what the policies applicable to community members are. As it currently stands, the religious exemption policy hinders CWRU’s vaccine mandate’s efficacy, so it should be reevaluated for future semesters.