“Countdown to a Safe Campus,” a Facebook page started by McGill Law Professors Richard Gold and Richard Janda, set a goal for McGill University to adopt a COVID-19 vaccine mandate before Friday, October 1. That day marked McGill’s 67th Annual Beatty Lecture with Dr. Anthony Fauci as the featured lecturer. The virtual event honoured McGill’s bicentennial and awarded Dr. Fauci with an honorary doctorate, recognizing his accomplishments and leadership to the community. Dr. Fauci, director of the U.S National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has served as a leading expert throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of August, Dr. Fauci said, “I would encourage private enterprises to seriously consider the idea of mandating vaccination in the enterprise for which they are responsible, whether that’s a university or a place of business.” Though the university has decided to honor Dr. Fauci with its greatest distinction, it has not implemented Fauci’s recommendation to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine on university campuses.
The main points of Dr. Fauci’s lecture were the likelihood of the pandemic worsening this winter, COVID-19 being airborne, and how the overall health of all should be prioritized over the individual liberty of a few. Fauci emphasized the importance of a vaccination mandate as well as other protections against the spread of the virus i.e social distancing in classes, but McGill has not followed these recommendations.
Nearly all Canadian universities outside Quebec require proof of vaccination. In mid-August, the university released a statement explaining its decision to not mandate the vaccine. It cited a Quebec law that allows people to refuse to forgo a recommended medical procedure. The university additionally cited its confidence in its health and safety measures, writing that “education and incentives will be effective […] to get as many people as possible vaccinated.”
Part of this confidence stems from the university adoption of Quebec’s vaccine passport. Starting in September, the vaccine passport became mandatory for non-essential activities on campus. These non-essential activities vary from sports and student organizations to dining halls and libraries, as of mid-October. Essential activities, including attending class and accessing residences, do not require the vaccine passport. The university will now be providing students and faculty with the option to use a vaccine passport “fast-pass” sticker, which will expedite the checking of vaccine passports in dining halls and other areas that require the passport.
In addition to the requirement of the vaccine passport, McGill has added other incentives for students and faculty to get vaccinated. This has included providing the community with information targeted to those who are unsure about receiving the vaccine, as well as social media outreach such as the “Ask an Expert” video series which explains why it is important to get vaccinated. Though the vaccine passport and McGill’s outreach may be useful in prompting students and faculty to get vaccinated, mandated vaccination is essential to stopping the spread of COVID-19, according to Dr. Fauci.
The “Countdown to a Safe Campus” Facebook page has been advocating for this on its posts. Articles about vaccination and Dr. Fauci’s recommended COVID-19 precautions are found on the page as well as opinions related to how the university should implement the mandate. When referring to Dr. Fauci being awarded an honorary McGill degree, the page wrote, “So how come McGill isn’t following the advice of the person the Principal says ‘expresses its highest ideals’?”
The university claims to have a readied response for the current Quebec alert level of COVID-19 and increased alert levels of the virus. There are four alert levels in total: Vigilance, Early Warning, Alert, and Maximum Alert. These levels are determined by the epidemiological situation, transmission control, and healthcare system capacity. Currently, McGill’s campus is in the “Vigilance” alert level.
As part of the protective measures against the spread of COVID-19, the university began testing wastewater for the presence of COVID-19 at La Citadelle, Carrefour Sherbrooke, Royal Victoria College, and Solin Hall starting in October and will begin testing at other residences “in the near future.” Wastewater testing allows the university to estimate the level of the virus spread and increase COVID-19 measures accordingly. Another precaution set in place by McGill are buildings with ventilation. The university claims campus buildings are well-ventilated, which protects against the virus and reduces the risk of spread.
In September, the university claimed that 85 per cent of its community was fully vaccinated, according to numbers from the Ministère de la Santé et des Services Sociaux. However, only 74 per cent of Quebec’s population is fully vaccinated. This high percentage of Quebec citizens unvaccinated likely led to the fourth wave of COVID-19 seen in September. McGill tracks its own cases which are updated every Tuesday and indicates if there was any community transmission of the virus. The university also claims to notify individuals who have been in moderate or high-risk contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, and has the contacts self-isolate and get tested. Students and faculty, however, have expressed concern over the adequacy and transparency of the university’s contact-tracing methods.
Though the vaccine is heavily encouraged, there are currently no vaccination clinics on McGill’s campus. There was a vaccination clinic available to students and faculty at the beginning of the semester, but those looking to get vaccinated now would have to get vaccinated at an off-campus location. As for students on the Macdonald campus, there are also no on-campus clinics, leaving few convenient options for students looking to get vaccinated. In addition to the lack of vaccination clinics, the university also does not provide on-campus COVID-19 testing – students must book their own testing appointments. This is due to Quebec’s decision to not include universities as part of their designated testing centers.
McGill provides self-assessment symptom forms and has laid out a written plan with steps for someone who thinks they may have been exposed to COVID-19. With approximately 85 per cent of classes being held in-person and many of these classes with no online option, there is an added risk of COVID spreading in classrooms. Professors are not required to wear masks in the room which again adds an additional risk.
“Countdown to a Safe Campus” expressed its disappointment at the university’s continued refusal to implement a vaccine mandate and wrote a message in its most recent post directed towards McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier. The message pushed the precedence of the collective good over individual liberty and to avoid taking actions that divide the community. It also noted that, “If McGill is the great university it claims to be, it can listen and learn from its own distinguished honorary degree recipient [Dr. Fauci].”