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MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. Explains Vaccine Mandate, Says 'Chances Are Pretty Low' Students Will Be Sent Home Again

headshot of Samuel Stanley Jr. smiling and wearing a suit
Courtesy photo
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Michigan State University
Stanley has led the university since 2019, so most of his time as president has been during the pandemic.

MSU is requiring students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19; though exemptions are available for religious or medical reasons.

Michigan State’s fall semester kicks off on the first of September.

And after a year spent learning and working mostly from home, students, faculty, and staff will be back on campus, but they will need to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. announced the vaccine mandate at the end of last month.

He joined WKAR's Sophia Saliby to discuss new requirements and other preparations for the fall semester.

Interview Highlights

On What Changed To Make The Vaccine Mandate Necessary

I think the big thing that came out was we were watching the increases in cases that have been seen nationally with great interest, particularly, in the southeast United States, and then the delta variant, itself, and how it was impacting those numbers. And when the data came out from the CDC, really, the day before we made the announcement, that simply said that, for one, the delta variant was probably three times as infectious as the originally Wuhan variant.

On How The University Is Incentivizing Those Who Are Vaccine-Hesitant To Get The Shot

I think the biggest incentive, you know, is going to be now with the mandate is going to be if you want to come on campus, essentially, you have to be vaccinated. If you have a medical or religious objection, you will be allowed on campus, but you'll have to wear a mask and be entered into our early detection program. So really, basically, you're gonna have to be vaccinated.

On The Possibility Of Sending Students Home Again

I think if one had a variant that really had escaped from vaccine protection, so if there was a variant that had developed to where a vaccine was no longer effective in preventing disease, that would be something, I think. But I think the chances of that are pretty low based on the spike protein and how it's developed. But you know, I wouldn't bet against anything on this virus, so we'll continue to monitor, as are people around the country. I don't think that's a likelihood at this point.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Michigan State’s fall semester kicks off in less than a month.

And after a year mostly at home students will be back on campus, but they will need to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. announced the vaccine mandate at the end of last month.

He joins me now to discuss it and other preparations for the fall semester. Thank you for being here.

Samuel Stanley Jr.: Oh, you're very welcome. Good to talk with you.

Saliby: The university was not originally planning to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for those on campus, staff [and] students? What was the moment that made you change your mind about requiring the shots?

Stanley: Well, I think from the beginning, we've been following what's been happening, particularly in the community and around the country and in Michigan, of course, too. And I think one of the things we talked a lot about was making sure, as you said, that we had the ability to open in as safe a manner as possible for all faculty, staff and students.

So, I think the big thing that came out was we were watching the increases in cases that have been seen nationally with great interest, particularly, in the southeast United States, and then the delta variant, itself, and how it was impacting those numbers. And when the data came out from the CDC, really, the day before we made the announcement, that simply said that, for one, the delta variant was probably three times as infectious as the originally Wuhan variant.

So where we were talking about this, you know, "R naught" figure we use of how many people one infects, one person who is infected is capable of infecting. For the original Wuhan variant, it was about two and a half to three. For the delta variant, it's probably closer to six to eight. So, that means it's a significantly more contagious virus.

We were talking about this, you know, "R naught" figure we use of how many people one infects, one person who is infected is capable of infecting. For the original Wuhan variant, it was about two and a half to three. For the delta variant, it's probably closer to six to eight.

And so, I think that means that when we originally we thought about herd immunity, we thought about needing about 70% of individuals vaccinated to probably reach a range where you could approach herd immunity in a community [or] in a dormitory, etc. But when you look at the delta variant, that number creeps up to 90%.

So, while we knew we thought we had some good coverage in vaccination, and I could talk more about that in a second, we weren't at the 90% level, we didn't feel across the board, to allow us that level of protection. So, that was one of the main things.

The second thing was the fact that breakthrough infections were taking place. So in other words, people who had been vaccinated were capable of getting infected in low numbers, but they could also possibly spread as well. So, that made us really think about a mask mandate to really reduce the possibility of transmission. And I know a number of our faculty and staff had been concerned about the possibility of transmitting the virus from themselves to their family members, particularly children, who many under 12, who can't be vaccinated yet.

So, the idea of wearing masks was really to add another measure, essentially, to reduce transmission rates across the university. And so we're mandating masks with the beginning [of the semester], mandating the vaccine. We are, of course, providing exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

Saliby: What is your message to those who think the university requiring vaccinations is unfair?

Stanley: Well, I know there's a number of people who are uncomfortable with this, and maybe, you know, strictly opposed to it, then and I understand, in some cases, I can sense why they might take that position.

As an infectious disease doctor who's been working in public health for decades, I realized the power of vaccines and how much of a difference they make to people.

But as an infectious disease doctor who's been working in public health for decades, I realized the power of vaccines and how much of a difference they make to people. We've been doing this with childhood vaccinations for decades now, and they've really helped us eradicate some very severe diseases, which had a tremendous toll on children in the past.

We're now seeing the delta variant affect children more. There's been outbreaks in children around the country. So, the need to come together as a community to take an action that both protects you and protects others is what I see as the main reason for this mandate.

So, we're really asking people to do the same thing you ask with seatbelts, [and for] the same reason you stop at a red light for traffic. It's because you really care about yourself, but you also need to care about others and their safety as well.

Saliby: I know the state hasn't hit that 70% vaccination rate both for the entire population, 12 and up population to get vaccines [and] 16 and up population to get vaccines.

If that herd immunity was kind of what the school was looking at, why wasn't that call made earlier, as opposed to now, in addition, to the threat of this delta variant?

Stanley: Well, I think it's always going to be difficult to get an entire state up to that level, but I think you can make a difference in communities. And I think if you look at outbreaks around the country, there often can be some regional nature to those.

So, that's how it certainly began in the southeast part of the country where you had regions and counties where they had higher vaccination rates, were experiencing lower numbers of cases. And that's the case, statewide, of course, as well, if you look at what's happening in Vermont, for example. Vermont borders some states that have lower numbers of people vaccinated, yet Vermont has maintained very low numbers of COVID-19 cases coming forward.

One of our risks is congregate housing in the dormitories, so I think, by getting up to those levels, we can definitely reduce the risk on campus.

So, we're pretty contained place in this campus, regionally, in East Lansing. One of our risks is congregate housing in the dormitories, so I think, by getting up to those levels, we can definitely reduce the risk on campus.

You're right, the community matters as well, and we'll continue to work with East Lansing to advocate and with the state to advocate for more people to get vaccinated. And if necessary, I'd love to bring back the Pavilion and provide even more people the opportunity to get vaccinated. We'll certainly explore any opportunity we can to do that.

But I think we can't really worry so much about what's happening in the area around us, we've got to make sure our Spartan community is vaccinated.

Saliby: How does the university plan to both, I guess, incentivize vaccinations and de-incentivize not being vaccinated when it comes to students this fall?

Stanley: So, I think we've tried some of those things, in terms of the system we set up where one could register, essentially, for drawings to receive cash prizes, and so on. So, we've tried to incentivize it.

I think the biggest incentive, you know, is going to be now with the mandate is going to be if you want to come on campus, essentially, you have to be vaccinated.

But I think the biggest incentive, you know, is going to be now with the mandate is going to be if you want to come on campus, essentially, you have to be vaccinated. If you have a medical or religious objection, you will be allowed on campus, but you'll have to wear a mask and be entered into our early detection program. So really, basically, you're gonna have to be vaccinated.

Of course, everybody if going to be vaccinated. Everyone is going to be mask-wearing, rather, as we start, but over time, if those numbers improved and got better and the CDC removed its recommendation right now that people in areas with case numbers that we have wear masks indoors, we will be able to stop doing that if that happened.

And that I think would be something people would appreciate, but I think this is all about getting back to campus, getting back to normal. And I think that's going to be the strongest motivator for students, and I think that's been the strongest motivator to begin with.

And, Sophia, if you look at the data we did in our vaccine survey, and we're still finalizing that, but certainly around 90% of faculty and staff, probably somewhat higher than that, and close to 90% of students who've filled in that form and reported it had been vaccinated. Now, that's a little more than half of the return we got, a little more than half of the numbers we sent out.

So, I can't say with certainty that speaks for the entire population. But we had made good progress in getting people vaccinated, but this is, I think, was a way to get us to the space we need to get now.

Saliby: As someone with a background in infectious disease research, as you mentioned, how do you see the threat of the delta variant or these other more contagious strains impacting the MSU community, obviously, right now, but also looking ahead to the fall semester [and] the spring semester, even?

Stanley: So, it really is dealing with almost a different kind of virus. If you look at the epidemiology of what's happening now, and of course, you know, I, like everyone else, you just have to watch CNN or any other channel to see, have been impressed by how rapidly it's spread, and how it really is extending the number of people who seem to get sick.

So again, I don't think there's clear data based on virulence yet. But I think, anecdotally, if you look at the reports, we're seeing more cases of children than we've seen before, more children in ICUs than we've seen before, and more young adults than we've seen before. Again, primarily in the unvaccinated, and, of course, children who couldn't get vaccinated because their age.

So, that's different than we saw with the Wuhan strain. We did not see as many cases in children. You know, as we know, most of the death and mortality were in people who were older. And that's still the case for this strain, so that hasn't changed. But I think it's extending its range of where it's causing more severe disease. That's at least what I think.

The good news is, as I said before, that the vaccines, the Moderna, the Pfizer, the J&J all work in reducing deaths, hospitalizations and becoming severely ill with COVID-19. That's incredibly important.

I would like to see more data on this, but what I see, and from talking to people who are on the frontlines, that's what they're seeing. And so, I think it's different, and I think that's why we need to be more vigilant than ever.

The good news is, as I said before, that the vaccines, the Moderna, the Pfizer, the J&J all work in reducing deaths, hospitalizations and becoming severely ill with COVID-19. That's incredibly important.

That is what matters most, right, is if people won't be hospitalized, won't be severely ill and won't die from COVID-19. That's the number one priority we have. The effectiveness against transmission with the delta variant during maybe less than it was for the previous variants. And so that's concerning, and of course, we have to be concerned what's coming next.

But the best way to counter that is to have as few people as possible with COVID-19 because the fewer people there are that have COVID-19, the fewer chances there are for new variants to develop and create new problems for us.

Saliby: March of 2020 was a chaotic time, a lot of quick decisions, a lot of information that was not yet known yet, as students were being sent home.

Could you imagine a scenario or what would it take to make that decision again, to send students home again?

Stanley: I think that's unlikely to happen, just based on the experience so far with vaccination and how well it's worked. I think that was a concern before we had effective vaccines. It's something that could happen, and we would be forced to cancel. I don't anticipate it happening, obviously, but like everyone else, I'll be looking at the numbers.

I wouldn't bet against anything on this virus, so we'll continue to monitor, as are people around the country.

But I think if one had a variant that really had escaped from vaccine protection, so if there was a variant that had developed to where a vaccine was no longer effective in preventing disease, that would be something, I think. But I think the chances of that are pretty low based on the spike protein and how it's developed.

But you know, I wouldn't bet against anything on this virus, so we'll continue to monitor, as are people around the country. I don't think that's a likelihood at this point.

Saliby: Most of your time leading the university has been during this pandemic. Is there anything you've learned during this time that you'd like to share?

Stanley: Well, again, the resiliency of the MSU students, and I had a chance over the summer to do some traveling and have a chance to meet with some students at different events I was doing. And I was really impressed by the ones I met. They talked about how they adjusted.

They were not, you know, some people have said students are bitter or angry. At least the ones I met, and again, you know, this is a sample of, you know, a relatively small number, but the ones I met were really grateful that they were able to continue their education. They hadn't had to pause it, that the faculty and staff had worked together with them to get courses that could be delivered to them.

I'm impressed by that resilience; I'm impressed by their desire to come back. And I think, for the vast majority of them, their willingness to do what's necessary to get back to MSU.

But all of them, all the students I happen to meet on this trip had been vaccinated or at least said they had been vaccinated. And all of them were looking forward to getting back to MSU.

So, I'm impressed by that resilience; I'm impressed by their desire to come back. And I think, for the vast majority of them, their willingness to do what's necessary to get back to MSU.

Saliby: President Samuel Stanley Jr. leads Michigan State University. Thank you for joining me.

Stanley: Thank you, Sophia. Always a pleasure.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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