Universities push back against out-of-state students inability to access COVID vaccine

  • The University of New Hampshire Wildcat sculpture on the street side of Memorial Field, dons a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases on campus have hit a high in February 2021. Rich Beauchesne / Fosters.com

Monitor staff
Published: 3/31/2021 4:05:05 PM

Nick Fitzgerald, the student body president at University of New Hampshire, said he wanted to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.

Mostly to regain some semblance of normalcy in his life but also to set an example for his fellow students.

But last week, at Gov. Chris Sununu’s weekly press conference, Fitzgerald, a New York resident, learned that he and thousands of his out-of-state peers would not be eligible to sign up for a vaccine appointment on Friday with the rest of his age cohort.

“If you’re a resident of Colorado but you’re going to school here, no, you cannot get the vaccine,” Sununu said at the press conference. “You can go to Colorado and get the vaccine for Colorado residents but you will not qualify for the vaccine here. This is for permanent New Hampshire residents.”

On Wednesday, the head of a nonprofit consortium that includes 21 public and private campuses said she is working to change that.

“The New Hampshire College and University Council has entered into discussions with the Governor’s Office to identify a timeframe for out of state students to be eligible for the state’s VINI registration program,” said Michele Perkins, chair of the council and president of New England College.

Perkins said colleges recognized the need to prioritize New Hampshire residents, but as the vaccine process unfolds ahead of the original schedule, they are hopeful the state will offer the vaccine to all students who want it.

For many out of state students in the state, traveling to their home states in the midst of a pandemic is no easy feat, plus it’s risky.

Fitzgerald said he didn’t feel comfortable traveling back to New York in the middle of the semester.

“I don’t want to go home and risk accidentally picking up the disease while I’m getting vaccinated,” he said.

Traveling unnecessarily within the United States is discouraged by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNH.

Fitzgerald said he is working on a letter with student leaders at other New Hampshire universities to protest the state’s decision. He said if the governor doesn’t change his mind, he’ll likely have to put off getting vaccinated until the semester is over.

University administrators and town officials alike have warned that this policy could prolong the pandemic — COVID-19 outbreaks at universities have radiated out from campuses and into local communities. As of Wednesday, the main campus of UNH had 96 active cases of COVID-19, making Durham one of the hardest hit towns in the state.

Ben Vihstadt, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said the state’s vaccine allotments from the federal government are based on the number of permanent New Hampshire residents and does not include out-of-state college students. Furthermore, Vihstadt said vaccinating out of state students would pose logistical challenges, as they would need to prioritize their appointments over Granite Staters’ in order for them to receive both shots before they left for the summer.

Some New England states, including Vermont, have similarly barred out-of-state students from the vaccine for the time being. Others, like Massachusetts, have allowed universities to vaccinate staff and students who don’t live in the state.

At a UNH student senate meeting this past weekend Paul Dean, the university police chief, said the school is working to set up a vaccination site on campus to encourage students to get immunized. When a student from Massachusetts asked if she would qualify for the site, he sighed.

“That’s the thing that we’re arguing right now with the state about and we’re not done fighting it,” he said. “Honestly it makes no sense to me.”

Dean said the president of UNH is also working to convince the governor to change his mind on eligibility.

Opinions about the governor’s decision have largely fallen along party lines. The N.H GOP sent out a press release Wednesday morning, arguing that students will return to their home states in just a few weeks.

Democrats argued the decision needs to be urgently reversed as New Hampshire edges towards a new surge in COVID-19 cases. Since the beginning of the month, new cases have steadily risen within the state and beyond, likely due to a highly contagious variant of the virus.

Vihstadt said once the state receives more vaccines, the residency requirement could change.

“At this time, given the federal government’s supply, NH residents cannot be put behind out-of-state, low-risk college students,” he said.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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