Miss a day, miss a lot. Subscribe to The Defender's Top News of the Day. It's free.

Many major universities across the country are quietly dropping their COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students at the end of the spring semester.

Lucia Sinatra, co-founder of No College Mandates, which tracks mandates and organizes parents, students, faculty and others to end them, told The Defender that at least 325 colleges and universities are still mandating the shots, down from a list of more than 800 top colleges the group was originally tracking. The group maintains an updated list on its website.

The language of the mandate-ending announcements is consistent across universities. They maintain that vaccines are “safe and effective,” and they continue to “strongly recommend that all students, faculty, staff, and visitors stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.”

Many announcements tie the end of mandates to the Biden administration’s decision to end the public health emergency — declared by the Trump administration in January 2020 — on May 11.

Sinatra said she thought the mandate dropping was “huge,” adding, “It’s what we’ve been fighting for, for the past few years.” But, she said:

“I worry it comes too late and I worry that they’re dropping mandates because they feel they’re being forced to do that …. their general counselors are weighing the question of ‘where are we least liable?’

“I don’t believe that colleges recognize, just like legislators, the majority of them, they don’t recognize the risks of vaccination, and they don’t recognize vaccine injuries. And obviously that’s a huge problem.

“It’s kind of disturbing. When it comes to discussing the consequences, there’s a big brick wall.”

None of the announcements analyzed by The Defender discuss the vaccine mandates’ impact on university students, staff and faculty, or higher education more broadly over the last several years.

Julie E. Ponesse, Ph.D., former ethics professor from Huron College at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, who was banned from accessing her campus for resisting the mandate, told The Defender universities needed to analyze and discuss the harm caused by the mandates and the internal reevaluation that led universities to conclude the mandates were harmful or unnecessary.

“In some sense, I don’t think it matters at all that the mandates are being dropped,” Ponesse said. She added:

“The fact that they were ushered in, and then out again, with so little visible outrage from so many, is the story to focus on. There is no doubt that this, or worse, could very easily happen again.”

The Concerned Alumni of Dartmouth College also addressed the consequences of the mandates and unaddressed harms in a conference they convened Wednesday, entitled “Important Conversations Never Had.”

Panelists addressed the wide-ranging impacts of the mandates in order to open “uncensored, apolitical, data-based discussion of the scientific, ethical, and legal considerations regarding college COVID-19 vaccine mandates.”

Panelists and speakers included Martin Kulldorff, Ph.D., Dr. Aseem Malhotra, Dr. Joel Wallskog, Dr. Sandy Reider, Todd Zywicki and Brook Jackson and keynote speaker Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Children’s Health Defense chairman on leave and Democratic Party presidential hopeful.

More than 300 people attended.

College mandates 2021-2023: ‘It’s ridiculous, it’s mind-boggling’

In spring 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most prominent U.S. universities moved online.

Since then, students, faculty and staff at universities across the country have been subject to a wide range of highly variable restrictions, such as “stay in room” mandates, mass testing, mask mandates, limits on group sizes, dining and travel restrictions, quarantining of students testing positive for COVID-19, and vaccine and booster mandates.

In the spring of 2021, as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, universities began encouraging students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated and hundreds of universities imposed mandates for the fall 2021 semester.

This was despite the fact that college students were at very low risk from COVID-19. At the time colleges began issuing mandates in July and August 2021, Zywicki said in his panel comments, documents obtained by the Washington Post showed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already knew breakthrough infections and deaths happened among the vaccinated.

This showed the vaccines did not prevent transmission, which, he argued, ought to be the legal basis for any vaccine mandate.

Kuldorff told the Dartmouth audience that even in mid-2021, mandating vaccination for previously infected students was, “a denial of science, science we have known for two and a half thousand years … To me that is as shocking as the university president claiming that the earth is flat rather than round, which we have known for about the same amount of time.”

“It’s ridiculous, it’s mind-boggling,” he said.

Part of the reason universities imposed mandates was in response to federal policy, according to Inside Higher Ed. In November 2021, the Biden administration issued a new rule through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requiring employers with 100 or more employees to mandate employees either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing by January 2022.

The rule, which a federal court later suspended and then OSHA withdrew, promised to expand the number of colleges and universities subject to a vaccine mandate.

Many universities mandated vaccines in part in response to the September 2021 executive order mandating vaccination for federal contractors (many universities have many millions of dollars in federal contracts).

Universities also receive large grants from the federal government and from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) specifically that some argue played a role in incentivizing mandates.

For example, Yale received, in 2022 alone, $607 million from HHS, compared to $475 million in student tuition. Since 1998, Yale has received $9 billion from HHS — $1 billion of which has been dispersed since 2020.

A search of the HHS grants database indicates similar awards made to other major universities. Duke University received almost $629 million from HHS in 2022, and more than $2 billion since 2020. Harvard received nearly $1.5 billion during that same time period.

Additionally, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020, $14. 25 billion was earmarked for U.S. colleges and universities on the condition that they complied with existing and future federal COVID-19 policies.

Sinatra pointed out that the top 25 schools get the most NIH money and they all mandated vaccines unless they were located in states prohibiting mandates. They are extremely influential in the world of higher education, she said.

For example, colleges in New Jersey without federal funding looked to Rutgers as a leader in decision-making, she said, and followed its lead although they have no federal funding.

“So there’s not a 100% bulletproof rule,” Sinatra said, linking federal funding to all college mandates.

By the fall semester 2022, as many universities were mandating boosters for students and staff, it was already widely known that young people, particularly college-age men, have been found to be at higher risk than the general population for serious vaccine side effects like myocarditis and pericarditis

Scholars at top universities, including major vaccine promoters like Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, were arguing in the press and in peer-reviewed studies against more boosters for college-age people.

They found potential benefits of the COVID-19 booster fail to outweigh the harms for young people ages 18-29, that boosters don’t prevent hospitalization or even breakthrough infections among people, but do in fact increase rates of myocarditis.

Many top scientists argued it was therefore unethical to continue the college mandates.

Yet, the mandates continued.

Limited pushback — but several lawsuits

According to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database, there have been at least 39,170 adverse events reported in the U.S. among college-age people (17-22).

Vaccination rates among the approximately 20 million college students in the U.S. were extremely high. As of September 2022, 85% of college students were vaccinated.

And on college campuses where vaccines were required, vaccination has been nearly universal, with several mandating universities reporting rates of 98% or higher as early as December 2021.

Those rates exceeded those of the general population with college vaccination requirements a significant, independent predictor of uptake, according to a national survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA) — a Pfizer-funded organization that provides colleges across the country with research and educational materials.

There was limited pushback by students against the mandates on university campuses, but across the country, several students and faculty did file lawsuits challenging the mandates.

In one example, in August 2021, CHD and a number of students sued Rutgers University over the university’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students attending school in the fall, The Defender reported, alleging Rutgers’ policy is a violation of the right to informed consent and the right to refuse unwanted medical treatments.

It also alleged that because Rutgers was working with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to study and develop their vaccines in ongoing clinical trials, the university would benefit financially if more people are required to take the shots.

The case is awaiting a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Law professor and conference panelist Zywicki sued George Mason for denying him a medical exemption based on his natural immunity. He won the case and was awarded a medical exemption.

Several Republican-controlled states also banned mandates.

‘Important conversations never had’

Experts who spoke on the Dartmouth conference panel or who were interviewed by The Defender said the impacts of the mandates extended even beyond serious vaccine side effects, to social harms like normalizing censorship, manipulation of the public through fear-mongering, concentrating the power of Big Pharma and driving social division.

Malhotra opened the conference by pointing to the power of the pharmaceutical sector to “promote products and choices detrimental to health,” and advocated for a discussion of changing laws to “protect the public from the excesses and manipulation of the pharmaceutical industry.”

But he also said the problem society faces was psychological. Governments intentionally terrorized people to subject them to greater control during the pandemic, he said, adding that without investigating and acknowledging that harm done, it would be difficult to make change.

Ponesse also told The Defender that action without acknowledgment — ending the mandates with no discussion — is a kind of “double harm.” She said:

“One thing we know about recovering after a moral injury is that talking about it creates a sense of control. That control gives us the strength to confront our own feelings, do the reconciliation work that needs to happen, and obtain some sense of closure so we can move on with our lives.

“The deepest injury is preventing victims from being able to do this work. Without acknowledgment or apology on the part of the wrongdoers (in this case, directly, the university administrators), the victims need to take control themselves by talking about it.

“To ‘forgive and forget,’ as they say, is in this case, not the virtuous thing to be done. In fact, it will just mire us in a cycle of victimhood from which it will be increasingly difficult to escape.”

The conference discussion also raised the issue of information known but suppressed or denied throughout the pandemic — the vast difference in age-stratified risk, the protective power of natural immunity, the idea that clinical trials ought to be ethical and based on informed consent.

Panelists also discussed how they had been censored — removed from social media and in Kuldorff’s case fired by the CDC from the COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Committee for raising concerns about the effect of the mRNA vaccine on young people.

Universities, Zywicki said, and mandates had been key to this suppression. He added:

“Universities have been a disgrace on this. Universities are supposed to be where to go for truth, for serious scientific debate …

“We need universities to become proper universities again, and not just propaganda mills …

“What they’ve become now are just ways of basically forced conformity on the best and brightest of American society to basically teach them to censor, to teach them to tow the party line.”

College student Elize Aquila (not her real name) agreed in an interview with The Defender. She said the COVID-19 vaccine policies at universities affected students’ thinking, learning and social experiences even at colleges that didn’t actually mandate the vaccines.

Although her school didn’t have a mandate, Aquila said, administrators created an atmosphere — with messaging from administration and professors, on-campus vaccine clinics and events, and free gifts to vaccinated students — that put tremendous social pressure on students to get vaccinated and stifled debate and conversation.

Aquila eventually left because “the pressure was too much,” moving to online school, which she described as a “weird, lonely, isolated experience.”

When asked how she felt about colleges ending mandates, Aquila said, “I feel robbed.”

“Why did we have to do this?” she asked, adding, “I think it ruined college for me and for people who are like me as well and just made coming into adulthood so much more stressful.”

“And now, we have a society that is him versus her, you know, just one group versus another. And it kind of feels like the Capulets versus the Montagues.”

Why does the orthodoxy of ‘safe and effective’ continue?

Kennedy closed out the conference by addressing the issue at the heart of the mandates — the orthodoxy of “safe and effective” that surrounds vaccines.

Even as they end their mandates, and despite evidence of harm to college-age students, universities continue to reiterate that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

“Why does the original orthodoxy of ‘safe and effective’ continue to have this resilience even when all of the science and all the common knowledge is clearly against it?” Kennedy asked.

He discussed the history of his work in the environmental movement and then in vaccine safety, where he first learned of the gap between what was known in peer-reviewed scientific literature and what public health officials told the public, which he said, has existed for a long time.

He explained that in the ’70s and ’80s, it became clear that liability for harms from vaccines was extremely costly for drugmakers and drugmakers demanded — and got — protection from liability from the government.

This gave the industry the perfect product, he said. Vaccines today are exempt from pre-licensing safety studies, exempt from liability and exempt from marketing costs because so many of them are mandated.

He said:

“Any industry that looked at this product would say, this is the perfect business to be in. There’s no cost. The federal government pays for anything, and there’s no liability and there’s no accountability and there’s no marketing.”

That, he said, created a sort of “gold rush” of vaccines, and many vaccines were added to the vaccine schedule. They became part of a suite of toxins that are poisoning human health, with very little public pushback.