Editorial | A $2,500 lottery is no replacement for a vaccine mandate

Mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for those returning to campus seems to be the consensus among Pitt students, faculty and staff. Senate Council passed a resolution calling for this on May 26 with 79% support and Student Government Board followed up with a Monday statement in solidarity with this decision.

But Pitt seems to be content sticking to its own plan, hoping that a lottery for students who voluntarily disclose their vaccination status will incentivize vaccine-hesitant students to get immunized. The University is offering life-changing prizes like gift certificates to the University Store on Fifth and $2,500 cash, roughly equivalent to one semester of an on-campus meal plan.

Pitt went ahead and announced last Wednesday that they’re not currently planning to require students to be vaccinated. This decision is short-sighted, unnecessarily risky and, coupled with a lottery for vaccinated students, insulting. In a word — wrong.

Pitt needs to require vaccines. Medical and religious exemptions should be considered, but the principle is broadly there — if you have access to and can safely receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you must get one.

Other universities, including Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon and all Ivy League schools, are mandating vaccination against COVID-19 to return to campus. But regardless of what other institutions decide to do, Pitt has set a precedent of requiring immunizations against other diseases, such as measles, mumps and meningitis.

The list of potential reasons for not giving the COVID-19 vaccine a similar mandate is unimpressive. Of course, there’s financial considerations, which simply can’t be weighed against public health in good conscience. Though, based on the grand prize offering of $2,500, maybe the University is genuinely strapped for cash.

There are also funding concerns, given that Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania General Assembly have threatened to cut funding to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine after they required employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 1.

Pitt received around $151 million from the state for the 2021 fiscal year, so yes, there is money to be lost here. But the budget deadline is July 1. If this is legitimately a hurdle for the University, they simply could have waited to announce their decision regarding a vaccine mandate until after then.

As for the inclination towards positive reinforcement such as the lottery, it’s a cute idea and certainly doesn’t hurt persuading voluntarily unvaccinated students to change their minds, but is insufficient in practical terms. 

As more contagious COVID-19 variants emerge, it will be crucial to have a fully vaccinated student population that will also be willing to receive potential COVID-19 booster shots in the fall. A University-wide vaccine requirement is necessary, practical and clearly in the best interest of public health. Positive reinforcement is all fun and games until we’re staring down the barrel of another wave of infections. Even if — fingers crossed — this worst-case scenario is avoided, students and staff should not have to feel unsafe to accommodate those who are unwilling to be vaccinated.