As GOP attacks IU’s vaccine requirement, how Mitch Daniels and Purdue thread the needle
Suddenly, House Republicans want Gov. Holcomb to use executive powers during the pandemic? Hammer IU’s vaccine requirements for students, they demand. Here's how Purdue escaped the same attack
Interesting play, wasn’t it, Tuesday when 19 Indiana House Republicans sent a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb, pressing him to use his executive authority to knock down Indiana University’s plan to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students coming to campus for the fall 2021 semester.
Yeah, but didn’t they just …?
Never mind, right?
Setting aside for the moment that an entire wing of the Indiana House and Senate spent a session calling out Holcomb – not to mention local health officials – for using executive authority to issue statewide local mask requirement and other COVID-19 prevention measures, the pressure campaign on the governor proves how dicey it’s going to be on campuses as they navigate what everyone hopes is the back end of a pandemic.
IU’s rally to defend its COVID-19 policy also illustrates how Mitch Daniels and Purdue might have threaded the needle – not requiring a vaccination, but making life a bit more onerous for those who refuse – in a way other schools haven’t so far about a return to campus in the fall.
On Tuesday, state Rep. Jim Lucas, a Seymour Republican, posted a letter he and 18 other House Republicans sent to Holcomb, challenging the governor to wipe out IU’s rule for the fall semester – one IU issued last week.
Lucas posted: “In response to Indiana University mandating that students and faculty get a vaccine that is not FDA approved and is made by companies that have liability immunity for a virus that has a 99+% survivability rate, I just submitted this letter that I had drafted and circulated among House Republicans to Governor Eric Holcomb asking him to stop this madness!”
(The post was tucked into a day’s worth of pro-gun and anti-COVID restriction memes, including this one, mocking Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and one-time advice to wear double masks during the pandemic: “If you wear two swimsuits, you can pee in the pool this summer.”)
The letter read:
“In light of a recent announcement from Indiana University (IU) regarding mandating students accept the COVID-19 vaccine, a vaccine that does not have full FDA approval, we urge you to use your executive authority to prohibit state universities from mandating such a requirement.
"Nobody is disputing that COVID-19 is real, or dismissing the contributions of health care professionals over the past year; however, enforcing a mandate that students and faculty accept a vaccine that does not have full FDA approval is unconscionable. Students' classes will be dropped, others will be ostracized from IU, and employees will be terminated per this new policy."
Lucas also posted that he was “also working with the Attorney General’s office for even more pressure.”
Cue Attorney General Todd Rokita, the former 4th District congressman who in the first six months on the job hasn’t passed on a conservative talking point opportunity for a spot on “Fox & Friends” and the like when he sees one.
Of the 19 House Republicans who signed the letter, none come from the Tippecanoe County delegation.
Holcomb, on a trip to Israel, hadn’t commented, as of Wednesday morning.
IU officials released a lengthy defense of the vaccination guidelines, which are similar to ones at Notre Dame and a handful of smaller, private colleges and universities in the state. Students on the Bloomington campus will need to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 15 to prep for the first day of classes.
Last week, Dr. Lana Dbeibo, director of vaccine initiatives with IU's Medical Response Team, told the Indianapolis Star: "It wasn't a decision that was taken overnight, that's for sure. … This requirement came as a result of this motivation or goal to be able to transition our community to as normal as possible."
IU’s response Tuesday to the House Republicans’ letter included this:
“If we hope to do this while continuing to avoid large outbreaks, the science is clear that we need a much higher rate of immunity within our IU community. The vaccine is the only way to make sure that happens by the time students return. The policy mandating the vaccine reiterates that we are not requiring a vaccine "passport"; with everyone vaccinated, that would be unnecessary.”
Chuck Carney, an IU spokesman, told the Indianapolis Star that the vaccine requirement included “standard exemptions for medical and religious reasons.”
At Purdue, where Daniels was among the early adopters of returning to in-person classes as much as possible after shutting down as the pandemic blossomed in spring 2020, the university continues to push students and staff to get a Moderna, J&J or Pfizer shot.
This week, Purdue lifted a mask mandate for outdoor spaces on the West Lafayette campus. Though, masks are still required inside campus buildings, as Purdue waits for widespread vaccination among the university community, according to announcements this week.
The latest vaccination stance from Purdue: The science shows it’s “the fastest and surest means” to getting back to normal – the campus included.
Rather than issue a blanket requirement, Daniels and the Protect Purdue effort offered a compromise: Students who don’t get shots will be subject to the same hassle of protocols that had them subject to spitting into vials during random testing, contact tracing and other surveillance meant to keep COVID-19 outbreaks at bay in congregate housing and other spaces on a densely packed campus.
Daniels’ message to campus, delivered two weeks ago in a video message, sounded almost identical to the one out of IU a week later.
“The vaccines can no longer be called experimental. They've been administered to hundreds of millions of people, and they work, wondrously. The higher percentage of us all who choose vaccination, the more open campus can be. There may be activities we can make available to those vaccinated, but not those who decline."
The difference is in the choice Purdue put on students – with consequences students who made it through the last year understand fully.
The threat of a bleak, 10-day quarantine stint in a Purdue Village apartment – P’ville for those who lived it during the 2020-21 school year – might not be the kind of incentive of, say, a shot at $1 million in the Ohio Lottery, but here’s betting it knocks down some vaccination resistance in what looks like a record student body in West Lafayette.
The real test of Daniels’ approach: We’ll see what the numbers are in August, when students flood back to Purdue for the fall semester.
Even so, it would have been interesting to see whether House Republicans would have been as anxious to come directly after Daniels and Purdue the way they did IU, knowing the former Indiana governor – with plenty of clout left in state GOP circles – wouldn’t be afraid to snap back at lawmakers looking for a power play on a state university.
We probably won’t find out. Because it’s looks like Daniels threaded the needle on this one.
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