When Portland Community College announced in June that students and staff would not need proof of a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to campus this fall, it made sense.
Students and staff at a community college come from all backgrounds and walks of life; community college is meant to be as broadly accessible as possible; and after more than a year of difficult distance learning, it was past time to get students back on campus, with as few barriers as possible.
Unfortunately, circumstances change, and members of the PCC board are right to recognize that student and employee health now demands a different direction. Board members should reconsider the previous policy when they meet this week and, like many other Oregon colleges and universities, mandate vaccinations for the fall term.
We know that Mt. Hood and Clackamas community colleges are not currently considering this mandate. We appreciate that the MHCC administration is concerned that such a mandate could create a substantial barrier to education for groups that are distrustful of the vaccines.
We appreciate their commitment to serving these groups — often representing people of color and marginalized groups — but we also acknowledge that sick students and staff are a barrier to education as well. As the Delta variant surges locally, the highest priority must be placed on protecting people from this virus.
When PCC's President Mark Mitsui made his decision in mid-June, COVID-19 cases were dropping. Hospitals were returning to nearly normal capacity levels. Vaccines, hard to find at the start of 2020, had become so widely available that anyone who wanted one could get one.
That month, Gov. Kate Brown lifted Oregon's mask mandate and rolled back most of the state's COVID-19 restrictions, and days after that, President Joe Biden spoke triumphantly from the White House about how the United States was overcoming the coronavirus.
Then along came Delta.
The variant, which is spreading widely across the world, now accounts for nearly all new infections in the United States. It's far more infectious than the original, and it appears more resistant to vaccines.
For the vaccinated, that's troubling. For the unvaccinated, it's deadly.
Last week, Oregon Health & Science University released a forecast showing that unless everyone masks up and more people get vaccinated, the state will run out of hospital beds next month.
It's already happening in some places. Jackson County, which did not hit a 50% vaccination rate until last week, is out of intensive care beds. Northeastern Oregon has been hit hard, too.
We are facing a crisis point, and we need to take a crisis approach.
We do not have the luxury of standing back and letting people make "personal choices" that jeopardize public health and safety. We are dealing with an incredibly infectious virus — so contagious that it has been compared to the chickenpox — that is, at present, crushing some of the world's most advanced health systems.
And, as any parent who has caught a case of "something going around" their child's classroom knows, schools and colleges are almost perfect Petri dishes in which diseases can explode out of control.
The PCC board of directors voted narrowly to bring a vaccine mandate for students and staff up for consideration when it meets Thursday, Aug. 19. We hope board members will recognize the necessity of supporting this mandate, with reasonable exceptions for those who are not able to be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons.
PCC can require proof of vaccination while remaining accessible and open. COVID-19 vaccines are free and widely available. Both local governments and community organizations — including public health departments, nonprofits like Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, and businesses like Tektronix and Nike — have worked overtime to expand vaccine access and reduce disparities between racial and ethnic groups.
There is a wealth of information available about the vaccines: how they were developed, what is in them, how they work and what side effects they may have. There is broad consensus among experts that the vaccines are safe, ethical and effective.
We recognize that not everyone will be happy if PCC implements a vaccine mandate. But we hope such a mandate will prompt vaccine skeptics to take a step back, consider the data and make a more informed decision — one that will keep them on the pathway toward a degree or certificate, while also protecting themselves and those around them.
If we can't bring the rampaging virus under control, we know what we face: the possibility of another "lost year" of education, shuttered businesses and months of social distancing. We all need to do our part to turn the tide. That includes policymakers at PCC and other community colleges. Their actions now could save lives — and, just maybe, rescue the school year.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.