As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in Massachusetts, and new concern looms over the Omicron variant, some public and private colleges will require students, staff, and faculty to receive a booster vaccine for the spring semester.
Bentley University, Boston College, Emerson College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst confirmed their new requirements on Wednesday. Northeastern University announced on Thursday it would also update its safety requirements to include booster shots for all faculty, staff, and students.
Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman, said that the college “will require a COVID-19 booster shot for all students, faculty, and staff, We are working on the logistics now, given the six-month waiting period for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.”
Other institutions, including Boston University and Harvard University said they are strongly recommending booster shots, but have not decided on a mandate.
BU “has a vaccine mandate in place, but we have not yet mandated boosters,” Colin Riley, a university spokesman, said in a statement.
One medical expert said it is not yet clear if boosters are necessary for young and healthy students, or will help sway vaccine skeptics.
“The issue is, is this really the right strategy and what impact does it have on the vaccine-hesitant? I don’t know,” said Dr. Richard Malley, a senior physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. “I think time will tell us whether this is the right strategy.”
Some specialists believe only those at higher risk of complications should get boosters, though the new Omicron variant has complicated the equation, Malley said.
But some colleges and universities believe booster shots are necessary to protect their campus communities.
In a statement posted to the UMass Amherst website, Bill Brady, the school’s vice chancellor and chief human resources officer, and John McCarthy, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, confirmed the booster requirement for faculty and staff, days after Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy confirmed the same policy for students.
It applies to students and staff who are eligible to receive boosters; they become eligible six months after their second Pfizer of Moderna vaccine or two months after the single-shot Johnson & Johnson jab.
“With the expected continued emergence of new COVID-19 variants, full vaccination, including boosters, is the most effective protection against COVID-19,” wrote Brady and McCarthy in the statement.
They said approved “religious or medical exemptions to the vaccination mandate will continue to be in effect. Employees are eligible to receive release time to get their booster shot and are also entitled to time off due to any vaccination side effects.”
Emerson confirmed its booster policy in a note to students, faculty and staff from Erik Muurisepp, assistant vice president for campus life.
“Emerson will require a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for all students, faculty, staff and vendors who live, work or study on the Boston, Los Angeles and Netherlands campuses one day a week or more, prior to their return to campus following the winter break or as soon as they become eligible,” Muurisepp wrote.
He said students “will be required to upload their booster documentation to the student health portal prior to their arrival” and that faculty, staff, and vendors will have to “upload their booster documentation” in a web portal as well.
Bentley University informed students and faculty of the booster requirement on Tuesday and said that all residential students must provide a negative COVID-19 test before moving into campus housing.
“Getting your booster shot will not only give you added protection against contracting COVID-19 or becoming seriously ill, but will also help you to prevent spreading the virus to family members, colleagues and friends,” Bentley said in a statement, adding that 94 percent of the campus community will be eligible for a booster by the beginning of the spring semester.
Northeastern announced its new booster requirement on Thursday in a statement from Kenneth W. Henderson, chancellor and senior vice president for learning.
Faculty, staff, and students will be required to get a booster shot by Jan. 18, 2022, or seven days after they become eligible. University employees who fail to comply “may be placed on unpaid administrative leave,” the statement said. Students who fail to get a booster may have a hold placed on their account.
Harvard is currently not requiring boosters but strongly encouraging them, according to recent statements from the Ivy League school.
A statement posted to the university’s website Wednesday from Provost Alan M. Garber, Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, and Giang T. Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services, said vaccination remains a requirement for all members of the campus community.
“If you are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine booster and haven’t yet received it, please make a booster appointment as soon as possible,” the three administrators wrote.
Harvard’s vaccination webpage says the school “strongly encourages boosters for everyone who is eligible.”
A similar approach is currently being taken at UMass Lowell.
“While UMass Lowell strongly encourages anyone eligible to receive a booster to schedule an additional dose, we are not planning a booster requirement for the spring semester at this time,” a UMass Lowell spokesperson said via e-mail.
Elected officials and public health specialists have repeatedly pointed to vaccines and boosters as key weapons in the nation’s battle against COVID-19, particularly with the emergence of troublesome variants such as Delta and Omicron.
Pfizer said Wednesday that a booster dose of its COVID-19 shot may protect against Omicron even though the initial two doses appear significantly less effective. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said lab tests showed a booster dose increased by 25-fold the level of so-called neutralizing antibodies against Omicron.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed reporting.