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All three Arizona universities to issue COVID-19 vaccine mandates
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All three Arizona universities to issue COVID-19 vaccine mandates

The University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University will require all employees to show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 by Dec. 8, unless they have been granted a religious exemption or accommodations for a disability.

The move, announced Friday, comes soon after President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring a vaccine mandate for federal employees, including institutions that contract with the federal government, like the UA and Arizona’s two other major universities. The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has told these institutions to make sure their employees are fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

Last week, UA President Robert Robbins — a cardiothoracic surgeon who has repeatedly urged all students and staff to get vaccinated — said at a news conference that the UA would wait and see what happens with litigation at the state level before issuing a vaccine mandate.

Right now, the state of Arizona is challenging a Maricopa County Superior Court judge’s recent ruling that the state’s ban on mask and vaccine mandates at public colleges and universities is unconstitutional. Last month, Gov. Doug Ducey’s spokesman C.J. Karamargin called the ruling “clearly an example of judicial overreach.” The Arizona Supreme Court is set to rule on that case sometime in the near future.

But, in addition to following that litigation, Robbins said last week that he’d be watching what happens on the federal level and that it could be a “tipping point” in the university’s approach to requiring vaccines.

Friday was apparently that tipping point.

“The University has hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts, funding critical research, employment, and educational efforts, and already has received amended federal contracts that include this requirement,” Robbins said in a letter sent to employees Friday morning via email. “While we respect individual opinions regarding the vaccine, we will continue with these mission-critical endeavors and will be complying with this new requirement.”

It’s unclear what will happen to employees who fail to comply as the federal guidelines are unclear. The university is waiting on guidance and working with its human resources department on disciplinary responses.

The UA has about 16,000 employees who are now required to get vaccinated, and that includes student and graduate workers. To date, 51% of those people have voluntarily uploaded proof of vaccination.

In response to Friday’s news, Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, characterized the federal order as a “power grab” that “improperly coerces our universities to override the policies of this state and mandate the vaccine on faculty and employees.”

“The goal post set today will continue to be moved in a direction away from personal liberties,” Leach said in a news release. “This is very disconcerting; I support all challenges to overturn these unacceptable federal mandates.”

The United Campus Workers of Arizona, a union that formed last year in the wake of COVID-19-related furloughs, however, was pleased with Friday’s news.

The union, which has an active local chapter at the UA, has advocated for stronger COVID-19 protections — including vaccine and testing mandates for students and workers, hazard pay and more flexible working conditions — since the campus in Tucson reopened at full capacity this semester for the first time since the pandemic began. The UA, as well as NAU and ASU, found a loophole in the state’s ban on mask mandates back in the summer, and all three campuses require masks be worn indoors when social distancing is not possible.

“We’re happy that all university leadership — at the UA, NAU and ASU — moved forward with the (employee) vaccine mandate,” Emma Gomez, a career track faculty member at the UA and member of the campus workers union, told the Star on Friday afternoon. She said the union is hopeful that the UA will give employees who still need to get vaccinated extra paid sick time to deal with any side effects of the vaccine — a day or two of flu-like symptoms is a common side effect.

At the same time, the union is still pushing for a student vaccine mandate, with the appropriate exemptions. Friday’s announcement does not affect the approximately 47,000 students enrolled at the UA and they are not required to get vaccinated at this time, though 53% of UA students have already voluntarily uploaded proof of vaccination.

“For those of us who are still exposed to students, we know they’re living in tight quarters like dorms and off-campus apartments where viruses get passed around,” Gomez said. She’s teaching in-person English courses this semester, and from her perspective, requiring student vaccinations would further help “strengthen the health and safety of the university.”

In addition, the union still wants to see mandated regular COVID-19 testing and hazard pay, neither of which have been ordered by the UA yet.

Friday’s announcement about the employee vaccine mandate “is a good step forward,” Gomez said. “But we definitely need to take more steps forward. It does give you hope. It does seem like they’re listening to a lot of people’s concerns.”

With students back at UA for the fall semester, here's a look at the Tucson campus over the years compared to now.

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at kpalmer@tucson.com or at 520-341-7901.


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Higher education reporter

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at kpalmer@tucson.com or at her new phone number, 520-496-9010.

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