An administrator at Lone Star College, apparently spooked by the number of perspective incoming students who hadn't yet provided proof they received their state-mandated meningococcal vaccine that protects against meningitis, has told employees at her North Harris County campus to hand students an exemption form "even if they have had the vaccine or have intentions of getting the vaccine."
At stake is the possibility of "losing thousands of dollars in funding," Assistant Dean for Enrollment Services Marilyn Dement wrote in a July 25 e-mail. Repeated attempts to contact Dement as well as Shanna M. Keene, another administrator at the college's Greenspoint Center who passed on the instructions, were unsuccessful. Eventually, we were contacted by two public relations representatives for Lone Star who said they would get back to us, but didn't.
It appears at least part of the Lone Star College system is trying to circumvent the state-mandated immunization process, designed to protect students against a disease that while rare, tends to have deadly consequences. The state does provide exemptions for those people with religious or health reasons, though it is hard to see how that is at play here -- given Dement's note that signed and notarized exemptions should be secured even if the students already have the vaccine.
The other factor is that this should be a relatively unusual occurrence. But in her e-mail, Dement noted that a staff member had printed up 5,000 of the exemption forms.
Without revealing the name of the school involved, we bounced the situation off Dominic Chavez, senior director for external relations with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Chavez said that some colleges strictly enforce the vaccine requirement, because their lawyers have told them they could be sued if they allow a student with meningitis to attend classes who then infects other students. Others interpret it more loosely and grant 10-day waivers which is within their purview. He said he'd never heard of a situation like this.
Because the state regulation calls for there to be a 10-day waiting period between when the shot is received and when a student can first attend class, Chavez said, the 10-day waiver covers that gap and allows students to attend class. But those "holds" are completely separate from the all-out exemption and it appears Lone Star already had employed those.
As Dement wrote in her e-mail:
"The list of students with meningitis holds is up to over 3,000 students! We are at risk of losing a number of students who have this hold. As a result we are looking at re-registering literally thousands of students and losing thousands of dollars in funding.
With only 17 days left until students are dropped, it is critical students complete the forms.
Suzanne has order [sic] 5000 exemption forms. I expect everyone to have the forms in their office and giving them out to all students."
On July 30, Greenspoint Program Manager Keene forwarded the e-mail with this additional note to employees in student services, admissions, registration and advising:
"Beginning today, we will follow suit with North Harris and give exemption forms to any student who has the Meningitis hold on their account. All other procedures for the exemptions (from previous email) will still be followed. I would prefer that this primarily be handled at the front counter and students being given the forms there, however, to ensure all bases are covered I expect each advisor to have copies of them readily available in your office/work area since we have to go into their accounts as well."
Chavez said the coordinating board has "limited police powers in terms of sending a team down there. I think the most we would be able to do is to contact the institution." He also said: "There may be an effort to revisit this law next session."
For one thing, he said, "It is disproportionately affecting students" who attend community college and are more likely to try to enroll at the last minute for their classes. Students at universities usually have a longer lead time before enrolling and more time to get matters, like immunizations, taken care of. He did point out that whatever the college may be saying, it is the individual student who is signing a notarized form, pledging that the information on it is truthful.
Chavez suggested we call the Texas Department of State Health Services to get their take on the importance of the vaccine, so we did.
"We're talking a Meningococcal disease here and it can cause meningitis or even more serious infections," said Chris Van Dusen, assistant press officer with the state health department. "It's not a common disease but it is very very serious, has a very high mortality rate. It particularly seems to affect young children as well as kind of older teens and kind of young adults. Sort of their living situations. This is something that's spread through saliva, through living in fairly close quarters .. that's what you see in a dorm."
Asked what his agency would do about any school doing what we had described, Van Deusen distanced the state health department from enforcement.
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"We're not implementing that law; we haven't written the rules.The Higher Education Coordinating Board has so I think that's a question they need to answer." Van Deusen said.
He did note that the vaccine, while "safe and effective," is not inexpensive; "I understand it is upwards of $100 to get" although many insurance plans cover it.
Lone Star college states on its website it was "Selected by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a National Leader in Student Completion." Clearly it allows nothing to stand in its way of achieving that goal.