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Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccine divide extends to the state’s universities

Oregon Institute of Technology, Klamath Falls campus, Apr. 28, 2021.
Donald Orr
Oregon Institute of Technology, Klamath Falls campus, Apr. 28, 2021.

Some universities located in more rural areas are seeing a larger percentage of allowable vaccine exemptions but, they say campus is still one of the safest places.

All of Oregon’s public universities have COVID-19 vaccination requirements in place. But that doesn’t mean everyone on those campuses is vaccinated.

Some universities located in more rural areas are seeing a larger percentage of allowable vaccine exemptions — but, they say campus is still one of the safest places to be considering the lower vaccination rates in the surrounding area.

Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and the Oregon Institute of Technology, with main locations in Klamath Falls and Wilsonville, have the highest percentages of COVID-19 vaccination exemptions out of the public universities: About 24% for students and about 18% for employees at Eastern, and about 22% for students and 17% for employees at Oregon Tech.

Those exemption rates are roughly double what’s found at the state’s other public universities, where there are exemption rates of 10% or lower, among students and employees who have reported their status.

“I think students are largely representative of the regions from which they come,” said Tim Seydel, EOU’s vice president for university advancement. “A lot of our students are from, obviously, Eastern Oregon, southeast Washington, western Idaho, and those are areas with lower vaccination rates and higher exemption rates.”

Students walk on the Eastern Oregon University campus during the 2021 fall term.
Students walk on the Eastern Oregon University campus during the 2021 fall term.

All of the state’s public universities offer medical, religious and philosophical exemptions, consistent with state law. The majority of exemptions at EOU and OIT, much like the other public universities, are either religious or philosophical, with relatively few people requesting medical exemptions.

So far, EOU has seen 66 positive COVID-19 cases in students and employees since late July. That comprises about 4% of EOU’s population of in-person students and employees. In previous reporting, OPB found that case rates per capita at some of Oregon’s private universities with similar population sizes ranged from 0.2% to 0.7% earlier this month. Vaccination rates at private colleges in the state with vaccine mandates were also far higher than at Eastern or Oregon Tech.

At some schools, including at EOU and OIT, some students and employees had not yet attested their vaccination status or requested an exemption at the time OPB requested the information, including more than 800 students at Oregon Tech. For that reason, it’s unclear how many more unvaccinated people may be part of those campus populations.

Managing rural campuses through COVID-19

Seydel said the greater-than-average percentage of vaccine exemptions has not had a noticeable impact on campus operations at EOU.

“It really hasn’t affected us,” Seydel said. “We were actually more concerned if we set up more barriers and that students just wouldn’t come. … We serve our students who may have barriers to be able to get a vaccination or [have] concerns about it.”

Other schools have also stressed minimizing barriers for students who may be vaccine hesitant, such as Portland Community College, which made the decision earlier this fall not to require COVID-19 vaccinations. However, unlike the state’s public universities, PCC is still holding the majority of its classes online.

Last year, EOU offered a significantly larger percentage of in-person classes than other public universities, mostly due to its small size. That emphasis continued this fall, with about 1,500 students and employees on-campus in some capacity.

“We started out last fall term with in-person classes whereas everybody else was remote, so we’ve got some protocols in place that we figure are robust and the data has shown us that they worked pretty well,” Seydel said.

EOU’s protective measures include daily health checks, physical distancing where possible, masking indoors and advising students and staff to stay home when sick.

Seydel said the university is communicating with students and employees about testing and vaccinations and is continuing to work with the local public health agency to coordinate on-campus vaccination clinics.

Officials at OIT are also taking steps to minimize the spread of the virus, such as encouraging students to get the vaccine.

“Oregon Tech continues to work on disseminating accurate vaccine information and developing outreach to increase the rate of vaccination among our students,” OIT Director of the Integrated Student Health Center, Gaylyn Maurer, told OPB via email.

OIT has only seen 18 positive COVID-19 cases in students and employees since the beginning of the fall term.

Where OIT and EOU differ is the extent of regular testing. OIT is testing all unvaccinated students and employees weekly, as are Oregon State University, University of Oregon and Southern Oregon University.

Eastern Oregon is opting not to do that — neither are Portland State or Western Oregon University.

“Students can get tested if there’s a concern, but requiring every student to test wasn’t feasible for us,” Seydel said. “So, we’re following our protocols we had in place that have been successful.”

Seydel said all unvaccinated students were tested at the beginning of the term, and all students have access to COVID-19 testing at the student health center.

Currently, EOU has a test positivity rate of 37.1%. Officials say the rate is so high due to the low number of tests, and the fact that people are making the decision themselves to get tested, many of whom have symptoms. Only 178 tests have been conducted on-campus since late July.

Comparisons to the community at-large

“For schools like us, particularly schools in rural areas, but I think even at universities at-large ... the vaccination rates for on-campus are comparable or higher than those in the surrounding community,” Seydel with EOU said. “So, generally we’re one of the safer places to be in the community.”

EOU is in Union County and Oregon Tech’s main campus is located in Klamath County — counties with the lowest vaccination rates out of all of the counties with Oregon public university campuses. Both Union and Klamath counties have some of the higher case counts per capita in the state: Nearly 12 COVID-19 cases for every 100 residents.

Still, both universities’ campus populations are more vaccinated than their surrounding counties. Union County has a vaccination rate of about 57% and Klamath County has a vaccination rate of about 56%, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.

The OIT campus in Wilsonville is also slightly more vaccinated than its wider community in Clackamas County, which has a vaccination rate of 75%.

Maurer with OIT mentioned that, although students may be on-campus a lot of the time, they’re still out in the wider community.

“Our students may feel more shielded from the virus due to our relatively small campus sizes, but they are still in contact with many people throughout their day, and the effort to promote vaccination remains a priority for Oregon Tech,” she said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.