LOS ANGELES — As an emergency medical technician, Matthew Jervis was on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every ambulance call put him at risk of exposure to the virus, so vaccination was a no-brainer for him.
“I needed (the vaccine) because I worked with COVID-19 positive patients pretty often,” said Jervis, who was vaccinated in January as a U.S. emergency medical personnel working for Liberty Ambulance.
But being a technician is not Jervis’ primary focus — it’s his studies. And while the vaccine was not required for his job as an EMT, it is necessary for him to return to campus.
Jervis is a rising senior year majoring in public health at the University of California, San Diego. After more than a year of virtual education, he said he’s prepared to do whatever he has to do to get back to in-person learning, as long as it’s consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations.
“I can definitely see how (UC’s vaccination policy) is a topic for debate and how some people might be against it because it’s something that is super new and can be kind of scary, but as long as it’s all science-based and evidence-based, which I hope it is, then we’ll be good to go,” Jervis said.
The University of California Office of the President announced all students, faculty and staff would be required to be vaccinated in order to return to campus on July 15, becoming the nation’s largest public university system to mandate vaccinations.
The final policy requires students, with few exceptions, to submit proof of full vaccination at least two weeks before the first day of fall instruction at their campus. Chief Clinical Officer of the University of California Health, Dr. Anne Foster, said the vaccine will be UC’s “No. 1 tool” in being able to return to on-campus activity and assured the benefits “far outweigh the risks."
“The bottom line is they work,” Foster said of the vaccines. “They prevent disease, death, they prevent the severe side effects people can get from having this infection, and they really give us an opportunity to have some return to our normal life.”
The University developed a draft policy in April specifically designed to solicit feedback before a final COVID-19 vaccination policy was issued. Back then, UC said it would require vaccinations only when at least one of the vaccines receives “full approval” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In June, however, UC announced vaccination would be required, even without FDA approval.
“We listened very carefully to our community and what we heard was a very strong support for requiring vaccination before the fall term,” said Foster.
Although it is too early to estimate the percentage of the UC community that will submit exemptions and deferrals, she said, they are optimistic that the vast majority of people who can get vaccinated will choose to.
Nationally, 48% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and 56.2% have received at least one dose. The now dominant delta variant accounts for more than half of new infections in the U.S., according to the latest data from the CDC.
Amid a rise in new coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County, officials say new infections are limited to unvaccinated individuals.
"To date, we have not had a patient admitted to a [Department of Health Services] hospital who has been fully vaccinated, with either the J&J, Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Every single patient that we've admitted for Covid is not yet fully vaccinated," LA County Department of Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Board of Supervisors on July 15.
This is why Foster expects the majority of the UC community to comply with the policy.
“These are preventable hospitalizations, deaths, and a lot of preventable suffering from not being vaccinated,” Foster said. “So we expect it will be a minority of people who submit requests exemptions or deferrals.''
Consequences for non-compliance without qualified exemptions are still being addressed internally by the University. UC locations will be communicating implementation details to their communities as the fall semester closes in. Still, without approved medical exemption, disability or religious belief exception or a deferral based on pregnancy, unvaccinated individuals will not be able to access campus facilities. They will be limited to online course registration.
For UCLA student David Gelland, UC’s vaccination policy was the final push he needed to get the shot.
“I just wanted to be back on campus and be able to participate with everyone else,” Gelland said. “I had already planned on it, but it was really the UC’s saying they were going to require (the vaccine) that kind of made me get it faster, or like, sooner than later.”
He believes everyone should have a choice whether they want to be vaccinated or not, but at the same time, recognizes that UC is a “public school system and it is their responsibility to make sure their students and staff are safe,” Gelland said. “So I agree with their decision, and I saw it coming.”
As the “hypertransmissible” delta variant causes a surge of new COVID cases in the state, UC’s vaccine policy is relieving some anxiety for students who are hopeful for a full return to on-campus life.
“I’m super excited to come back. Hopefully, the delta variant isn’t a huge thing… just because we have such a large international student population… with everyone from all over the U.S and outside the U.S coming into one place,” Jervis said. “Hopefully, there’s not, like, a surge in the beginning, but at least, with the vaccine, if I were to get it I won’t have any severe outcome.”
UC Health is carefully monitoring the delta variant and watching the science very carefully, Foster said, and they expect to know more in the ensuing weeks. Until then, she encourages all students who can to get vaccinated.
“Let’s all do our part in trying to get back to a more normal life and bring this pandemic to an end,” Foster said.