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Colleges Requiring Students to be Fully Vaccinated

Hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation are requiring students to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before returning to campuses in the fall, but the mandates may be difficult to enforce fully.

Some schools such as Princeton University are requiring students to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 1, but it’s still unclear how others will manage vaccination and mask mandates — or what alternatives to on-campus learning may be offered to students who aren’t inoculated against Covid-19.

A number of colleges contacted by NBC News declined to comment, pointing to their websites for requirements.

“There is a lot of vaccine hesitancy, and colleges are places that have a high risk for transmission since people congregate in classrooms and school buildings such as dorms,” said Kristin Bratton Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

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Most universities won’t require students to submit a copy of an official vaccination card as proof, which could make the policies difficult to enforce, said public health expert Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the issue, 578 college campuses currently require students to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before returning for the fall semester. The American College Health Association advises all colleges and universities to implement vaccination mandates for students and staff, but the logistics are proving to be complicated.

For example, a lawsuit brought by eight Indiana University students is awaiting a ruling on whether the school’s vaccination mandate is legal under state laws that prohibit vaccine passports. In response to an opinion published by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita in May, the university dropped its proof of vaccination requirement and only requires nonexempt students to indicate whether or not they have been vaccinated. And Boston College’s refusal to grant a religious exemption for students at the Catholic school has angered some students and parents who are requesting a change in policy.

‘Quite a few’ exemption requests

Some students opposed to mandates see vaccination as a personal choice — and exemptions as a way to bypass mandates.

“I feel that I shouldn’t be forced to get the shot by a school that I’m paying to go to,” said a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Hofstra University on Long Island, who requested that she not be identified.

She told NBC News that she does not agree with the university requiring students to get the Covid-19 vaccination before returning to campus, and even considered transferring to a school that does not require the vaccination.

Although she does not have a medical condition that would make it dangerous for her to get vaccinated, she found a doctor who would sponsor a medical exemption and plans to submit a request before returning to campus in August.

“I’m not at all against getting vaccinated, but I feel like the vaccine is kind of new and I would rather wait to get it until it’s approved by the FDA, just to have peace of mind,” she said.

Related: New coronavirus strains are a risk, but experts say human behavior and social interactions that lead to superspreader events remain the most serious threat.

This is a challenge all schools with mandates will face: How will exemption requests be vetted, and what will the penalties be for falsifying information? The differences between just a handful of schools illustrate how the mandates vary.

Some schools, including Hofstra, have outlined specific health conditions to be medically exempt from the vaccination. Others are vague. University of Connecticut students don’t need to have a specific condition to apply for a medical exemption, but must have a health care professional attest that the Covid-19 vaccines would endanger their life or health.

Students at Indiana University are required to be vaccinated by Aug. 1, but can apply for exemptions if they are allergic to any component of the Covid-19 vaccines. They can apply for vaccination deferral if they are pregnant, breastfeeding, immunocompromised or have received monoclonal antibodies specific to Covid-19 in the past 90 days.

Already, Indiana University has received “quite a few” exemption requests, Chuck Carney, a spokesperson for the school, said in an email.

Medical exemptions and deferrals require a health provider’s signature. Religious exemptions, which most schools have voluntarily included, are almost always based on the honor system.

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“The religious exemption requires an online attestation that they request an exemption based on religious reasons, with the potential of disciplinary action for falsely making that claim,” Carney said.

In-person students at Indiana University who do not get the vaccination and who are not exempt will be unregistered from classes, have their access to university systems such as email terminated, and will not be allowed to participate in any on-campus activity, the school’s website states. But the penalties for fabricating a request are vague.

Hofstra will offer online classes to students who are unvaccinated without an exemption, and students who falsify records are “subject to the policies in the University’s Code of Community Standards,” Jean C. Peden-Christodoulou, associate vice president of Hofstra, said in an email. However, specific repercussions are unclear.

University of Connecticut campuses require in-person students to be fully vaccinated, but it’s unclear whether or not remote learning will be an option, only that students will face “loss of privileges and/or sanctions.”

Legal patchwork

Several states, including Florida, Indiana and Texas, have legislation prohibiting governments from passing laws that require “vaccine passports.” Some have interpreted this as applying to public universities as well, but many legal questions remain regarding the difference between private and public colleges.

Additional legal uncertainty lies in the fact that all Covid-19 vaccines currently hold emergency use authorization status, and it’s unclear when the shots will be fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

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“Universities have a duty to provide a safe campus and vaccination might be a part of that,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor of law at the University of California in San Francisco, who specializes in legal issues related to vaccines. “We need some guidance on this at the federal level.”

Despite the pushback, some experts say, mandates for college students will drive a much needed uptick in vaccination rates among younger adults.

“Mandates will help in younger age groups, where the perception is often that they don’t have to worry about getting very sick from Covid-19,” said Murray of the University of Washington, who expects vaccination rates among young adults to climb in the next month as a result of the mandates.

Majority in favor of mandates

In May, a Gallup Poll of 3,500 Americans found that roughly 60 percent were in favor of colleges requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Evan Levine of Camden County, New Jersey, whose son is a rising junior at Princeton, said he’s grateful for the school’s vaccination mandate and hopes the requirements will become the status quo as more schools implement the policy.

“Especially with the variants and rising infection rates in unvaccinated people, if the mandate to be vaccinated to be on campus was not there, I feel there would absolutely be more lost time,” he said, referring to remote learning over the past year.

Both Levine and his son, who is fully vaccinated, were notified of Princeton’s mandate via email in May.

“I feel like Princeton is throwing these kids a life raft with these mandates. If you want to experience college the way it’s intended to be, getting a shot should be a no-brainer,” Levine said.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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