Colorado universities mandate COVID-19 booster shots amid omicron surge

Colorado’s public universities are ramping up pandemic protection by requiring COVID-19 booster vaccinations for students and staff before resuming in-person learning this month.

Campus administrators at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and Western Colorado University in Gunnison on Tuesday said they made the decisions in response to the omicron surge, following the lead of some area private schools.

CU Denver and CU Anschutz medical school officials also have made booster vaccinations mandatory, and CU Colorado Springs officials are “strongly recommending” boosters and COVID-19 testing.

“Vaccinations plus boosters are the best way to reduce COVID spread and minimize infection in breakthrough cases,” CU’s acting president Todd Saliman said. “This approach is the key to our priority of in-person learning, research and health services.”

On the CU Boulder campus, school officials decided to delay the start of in-person classes until Jan. 24 due to the combination of the omicron surge and disruptions from the Marshall firestorm, which displaced about 120 students and employees. (CU officials said they’ve raised more than $170,000 to support them.)

The shift toward mandatory booster shots bolsters existing pandemic defenses. Colorado public university campuses, once seen as COVID-19 hot spots, transformed over the past year into zones of relative safety by persuading most students and employees to get vaccinated and wear masks.

COVID infection rates on colleges campuses around Colorado mostly have stayed below 5%, typically well below the off-campus rates in surrounding communities. And state health officials last fall reported few major outbreaks at universities. At CU Boulder, more than 90% of students and employees were vaccinated.

Only students and employees who obtain written vaccination exemptions based on religious, health and personal reasons can skip the boosters.

Higher education leaders around the state say they plan to stay with in-person learning, with delayed starts as necessary while they monitor the omicron spread. At some schools, officials have increased limits on mass gatherings such as sports events.

Two private schools — Regis University and Colorado College — led the toughening of protocols before their holiday breaks by requiring booster shots, and proof, before students can begin in-person learning this month. The Rev. John Fitzgibbons, Regis’ president, cast this as a matter of helping to relieve health care workers and of respect for colleagues, classmates, friends and neighbors.

At CC, students must take a test upon their return to the campus in Colorado Springs. And CC students are required to cover their noses and mouths in all indoor spaces with N95 or KN95 masks, replacing the cloth masks that health professionals have said may not fully block omicron.

Colorado Department of Higher Education officials recently conversed with school presidents about the omicron surge but haven’t responded to queries about possible statewide guidance for schools.

In Gunnison, Western Colorado University officials pointed to infection rates below 2% last year and were planning on a return to in-person learning this month as long as students have booster shots by Jan. 31.

“If you have the vaccine, you’re likely to get less sick,” WCU interim president Nancy Chisholm said. “We want our students back on campus. That’s what parents say they want. That’s what students have said loud and clear that they want. We want to protect our students,” Chisholm said. “This is the safest place they can be.”

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