‘Trust us’: Pitt professors plead in July open letter to chancellor for COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Students%2C+pictured%2C+at+a+late+January+vaccination+clinic+hosted+by+Pitt+and+the+Allegheny+County+Health+Department.+More+than+400+faculty+members+sent+an+open+letter+over+the+summer+to+Chancellor+Patrick+Gallagher+in+support+of+a+COVID-19+vaccine+mandate+for+the+safety+of+the+University+community.

Rachhana Baliga | Staff Photographer

Students, pictured, at a late January vaccination clinic hosted by Pitt and the Allegheny County Health Department. More than 400 faculty members sent an open letter over the summer to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in support of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the safety of the University community.

By Punya Bhasin, Senior Staff Writer

In the leadup to Pitt classes returning fully in person for the first time in 18 months, more than 400 faculty members sent an open letter over the summer to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in support of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the safety of the University community.

Mark Shlomchik — a distinguished professor of immunology and co-author of the July 8 open letter — said his idea to create the letter stemmed from numerous discussions with his colleagues about the benefits of a vaccine mandate.

“Many of us, including myself, who work in the immunology department, work on vaccine development and the consensus was unanimous, that the University should in fact have a vaccine requirement from both a scientific basis and from basic safety considerations,” Shlomchik said. “We felt that maybe an open letter signed by many faculty would be an effective way of communicating our concerns.”

The open letter included faculty members’ concerns about the University’s COVID-19 guidelines and addressed the role that Pitt can play in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The Pitt News obtained a copy of the letter, which has not previously been reported.

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Faculty members emphasized in the letter that while masks “may have roles in some settings,” they do not see continued masking as a “viable alternative to universal vaccination.” 

They also recommended that unvaccinated students receive a vaccine “immediately upon arrival” at the start of the fall semester. The faculty members said they believed their recommendations would lead to “the best possible protection and safety of all students, staff and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh.”

“Given the timing, we recognize that it may not be feasible to require that all eligible students, staff and faculty be fully vaccinated by the start of classes,” the letter said. “However, we feel that at minimum proof of the first inoculation should be required before the first day of classes … If they do not have it before arriving, shots can be given immediately upon arrival at local clinics or pharmacies.”

The University’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office said last Thursday that 91% of faculty, 89% of staff, 95% of graduate students and 94% of undergraduate students have uploaded proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Pitt’s current COVID-19 guidelines require weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students in order to enter University buildings.

Pitt officials have repeatedly said the University stands firm in its current choice to not mandate a vaccine. Gallagher sent a July 23 University-wide email and said a vaccine mandate is “misleading” and “not realistic for many reasons.”

Neighboring Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and Chatham universities have all mandated a COVID-19 vaccine, barring religious exemptions, while Penn State University also isn’t mandating a COVID-19 vaccine for students nor employees.

“While our goal is to have everyone fully vaccinated, enforcing a vaccination mandate is not realistic for many reasons,” Gallagher said. “In fact, most universities and colleges that have announced vaccination ‘mandates’ are also — just like Pitt — preparing to accommodate unvaccinated individuals on campus and in university activities.”

University spokesperson Kevin Zwick confirmed the chancellor received the open letter on July 14 and said it “underscored the need for further clarity in regard to our institutional approach,” which “in part” led to a University-wide email sent the following week.

“The community message was shaped by questions from and discussions with a variety of stakeholders,” Zwick said.

Shlomchik said after receiving the University-wide email, he and a small group of faculty behind the letter requested a meeting with Chancellor Gallagher to discuss next steps and get further clarity about Pitt’s decision to not mandate a vaccine.

“I thought a more intimate group of the senior leaders who signed the letter and were willing to have a discussion would be more effective but he indicated that he was not willing to have that meeting,” Shlomchik said.

Olivera Finn, a distinguished professor of immunology, signed the letter and said she also emailed the chancellor after the University-wide email. She detailed her anger and embarrassment regarding the lack of vaccine mandate to the chancellor, and said she did not receive a response.

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When asked if any private meetings were scheduled or held with the chancellor, Zwick said “no.”

Zwick said many stakeholders invite Gallagher to meetings, and that it is “impossible to accommodate all incoming requests,” but did not directly respond to a question about Gallagher not responding to Finn. Zwick added that Pitt feels its pandemic decision-making processes have “successfully served” the University community.

Amid Pitt’s faculty union election, some organizers point to a lack of a vaccine mandate and other decisions from the University related to the pandemic as a reason to unionize.

Shlomchik said he did not receive a positive response from Gallagher to his follow-up email, but refused to provide a copy of the chancellor’s email to The Pitt News.

With a significant amount of support from immunology and public health experts, Shlomchik said he “expected more” from the University and wished it would “take advantage” of this expertise.

“There were 13 or more distinguished professors who signed a letter,” Shlomchik said. “There were three members in the National Academy, and there were over 400 faculty members who were all hoping the chancellor would broaden his base of information and have some engagement with those people to understand why they felt a different policy was necessary.”

Finn said she was “offended” by the University’s decision to not institute a vaccine mandate.

“I’m offended, I’m disappointed by my institution, I’ve been let down by my institution,” Finn said. “I’m embarrassed to say that my institution doesn’t have a vaccine mandate especially when this is an institution that celebrates the discovery of the polio vaccine and saving the kids, and now the University is saying they just don’t care about those values anymore.”

Shlomchik said he felt that Gallagher just didn’t want to hear any other opinions about his decisions.

“I guess you could infer that he wasn’t interested or didn’t feel like that group of people could add anything to the discussion,” Shlomchik said. “I think maybe he just had his policy set and he wasn’t willing to change it.”

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