On Jan. 8, a WordPress site called Cornellians Against Booster Mandate published an open letter protesting the university’s COVID-19 booster requirement and calling on University President Martha Pollack and the Board of Trustees to change the mandate to a recommendation. At the beginning of the spring semester, the letter gained more than 1,000 signatures from alumni, current students, parents, faculty and staff.
Currently, all students, faculty and staff must get the booster by Jan. 31, or 30 days after they become eligible. Individuals are eligible to receive the booster shot five months after a second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the CDC.
According to the Cornell Health website, those who have tested positive for COVID-19 before receiving a booster shot are required to receive it at least two weeks after the diagnosis and after becoming asymptomatic.
One supporter of the open letter, Dylan Young ’22, expressed concerns that the mandate does not follow current scientific knowledge of the virus. Young received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but he tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of the fall semester. Young said that due to his natural immunity, he believed the booster is unnecessary.
“Based on research I’m aware of, my natural immunity should extend beyond [this semester],” Young said.
Young said he felt compelled to get the vaccine due to the University’s mandate, but stated that it may be unethical to prevent Cornellians from choosing whether to get the booster due to what he characterized as known and unknown risks with little benefit to the community.
The open letter claims that the mandate disregards the natural immunity gained by students who tested positive for COVID-19 during an explosion of omicron cases late in the fall 2021 semester. It also highlights rare reports of serious side effects, such as myocarditis and pericarditis, in young people who received booster shots.
The letter asserts that the decision to get the booster should be left up to the individual, and argues that the booster mandate does more harm than good.
“Why force such risks on our students when the rate of severe Covid-19 illness in the 16 to 40 year age group is exceedingly low?” the letter asks. “Data now shows that the vaccine itself can pose more risk to young people than the virus itself, and repeated injections only increase those risks without any discernible reduction in the spread of the virus.”
While the CDC has recorded some serious side effects due to COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, public data from the CDC indicates they are extremely rare. From Sept. 22 to Nov. 5, 2021, 12 reports of myocarditis and myopericarditis came out of more than 26 million booster doses administered. An additional 38 cases were under review. The CDC also concluded that there were no unexpected patterns in reports of deaths following booster shot administration.
The CDC recommends that any person age 12 and older receive a booster shot, as it helps broaden protection against COVID-19 and is “safe and effective.”
Additionally, the letter claimed that the stress of having to receive new injections would worsen campus mental health.
“For many students, the coercive nature of a third injection, after being told that they needed only two injections to attend Cornell, is contributing to psychological distress and emotional disorientation about [their] future… potential,” the letter stated.
Young added that the way valid booster shot exemptions are judged by the University has caused him added stress and made him feel as though he lacked agency in his health decisions. Cornell only offers booster exemptions for those with proven medical or religious reasons, or both.
“It’s definitely been super stressful, applying for a health-based exemption and getting denied.” Young said. “It’s tough to get a good response [with an explanation] from the University.”
In an email to The Sun, the University stated that it “does not have anything to share at this time” regarding the letter. In a Jan. 11 message to the Cornell community, President Pollack emphasized that spring semester plans, including the booster requirement, are to “enable us to learn to live with the virus” and reduce the risk of serious illnesses.
Eli Pallrand ’24 contributed reporting.