UNM drops Covid-19 vaccine mandate

Elijah Barela and Elizabeth Secor

Almost three years since COVID-19 thrust the world into the unknown, UNM took a major step back into normalcy and dropped its vaccination requirement for students, faculty and staff on main campus. UNM Health and Sciences will keep its vaccine mandate in place for now.

“After evaluating current public health guidance and in consultation with our own medical and public health experts, The University of New Mexico will no longer require the COVID-19 primary vaccine series for students and employees,” UNM President Garnett Stokes announced in her “Weekly Perspective” email Mar. 13. 

Many things have changed since the mandate was implemented, according to official guidance posted on the school’s Covid-19 Updates and Information page. “We now know that vaccination does not prevent infection nor the transmission of the virus; rather, it prevents severe sickness in the majority of those who contract it,” the guidance reads. Plus, rapid testing and antiviral drugs enable earlier detection and treatment, reducing the risk of infection and strain on hospitals.

UNM began requiring all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the fall of 2021. In February, the university announced it was reconsidering the requirement and officially lifted it Mar. 13. 

Ian May, president of the Associated Students of UNM, said students don’t seem to be as concerned about the vaccine mandate now as they were early in the pandemic. “I remember we got tons of emails from students that were like, ‘Oh no, I’m really scared about this mandate’ or ‘I’m really happy’” about it,” he said.

But UNM was considering lifting the mandate, May said he has not heard anything from students, pro or con.

The change in policy comes after a virtual forum on Feb. 16 hosted by University President Garnett Stokes that discussed the science backing the mandate lift for the university.

“There are multiple studies that show that probably 90% of the population …has in some way entered in contact with either the virus through natural infection or through vaccination, so the so-called herd immunity that we used to wait for has occurred,” said Dr. Nestor Sosa, head of the infectious diseases division at UNM School of Medicine.

Sosa, a member of the UNM Health Protocols Committee, made the comments in the virtual forum along with other medical professionals who spoke about the science and history of COVID-19. 

“Three years ago, when we started, we were facing a new virus, novel virus, never seen before, and causing havoc in millions of lives across the world,” Dr. Christina Beato said during the forum. Beato is a former official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who oversaw the U.S. Public Health Service during the administration of President George W. Bush. She is now a family medicine specialist at UNM Hospital and chairs the University’s Health Protocols Committee.

The change didn’t trigger any significant public protest. That may have something to do with an improvement in the way officials are talking about it.

“Science changes, right?” said health communication professor Tamar Ginossar. “That uncertainty it is sometimes difficult to communicate.”

But May said he thinks the university has done a good job of keeping students and faculty informed and should continue to follow that process. 

“Continuing to push [vaccination], if they do continue to push that, is in a lot of ways about the same as a mandate in the sense that like, it’s really just encouraging students to be informed about the health issues.” 

When the pandemic began, health officials said vaccination was the most reliable way to prevent infection, serious illness, and transmission. “We now know that that is not accurate,” Beato said because even vaccinated people can get COVID and give it to others. 

Still, vaccination is the best way to prevent severe disease and death, Beato said, and the University continues to encourage community members to get the vaccine and boosters.

The existing “Vax the Pact” page has been retired and replaced by the new COVID-19 Updates and Answers page.