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A patient receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium clinic on Feb. 19.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration announced an expansion in eligibility for COVID-19 booster shots to all Americans age 18 and older. Penn students may soon have easy access to such vaccines; earlier this week, Penn's Chief Wellness Officer, Benoit Dubé, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that Penn plans on offering COVID-19 booster shots in the coming weeks. 

However, the availability of boosters may not be enough. With the first confirmed case of the new omicron variant in the United States, coupled with the waning effectiveness of initial vaccinations against infection, there is the significant possibility of COVID-19 disruptions to campus operations. To protect the well-being of its student body, faculty, and West Philadelphia neighbors, Penn must mandate booster shots as soon as reasonably possible.

The conversation for mandating boosters is still in its initial stages. After all, it has been just two weeks since the CDC recommended booster shots for American adults. Peer institutions such as Harvard have stated they will not require booster shots in the foreseeable future. As such, the Editorial Board is not arguing that such boosters be mandated immediately; rather, it believes booster shots should be mandated when more is known about the efficacy, and mandates start to be implemented. In other words, Penn, as it no doubt is currently doing, must continue to closely monitor the efficacy of current and future booster shots, as well as their effectiveness against new COVID-19 variants. 

Ensuring that everyone on campus has this added layer of protection would ensure that those on campus are able to carry out their daily activities safely. Although data is not yet complete, initial information gathered by the CDC portrays vaccines as becoming less effective against infection and relatively mild symptoms. Preventing these outcomes may not necessarily save lives, but it does minimize community spread and quarantine times, both of which can cause major disruptions. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said "booster shots have demonstrated the ability to safely increase people’s protection against infection and severe outcomes and are an important public health tool to strengthen our defenses against the virus."

Furthermore, mandating boosters would serve as protection against new COVID-19 variants. Experts argue that the increase in antibody levels provided by booster shots could very well ward against variants such as Omicron. There is precedent for this; the existing vaccine has proven relatively effective against the Beta and Delta variants, and there is a significant chance that it will have the same efficacy against the Omicron variant. Certainly, another booster or vaccination for Omicron might be needed, but existing boosters offer a guaranteed level of protection against many variants.

There is also an ethical lens to consider. Community spread doesn't just impact campus, it impacts our West Philadelphia neighbors too. Those who are unvaccinated, or unlikely to have a booster, aren't all feverous anti-vaccine activists. Many of them are too young to be vaccinated, or only recently became eligible, such as with the just 5% of children ages 5-11 who are vaccinated in Philadelphia. Other epidemics, such as the wave of gun violence in Philadelphia and mistrust in the medical system due to historical racism, are also dragging down vaccination rates in the city. To protect others, Penn must ensure its own campus is protected, and thus mandate booster shots.

Despite nearly two years of global disruptions, there is still much unknown about the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how effective vaccines will be in minimizing it. Given this, the University's administration must take all steps possible to protect students, faculty, employees and community members, and require booster shots to strengthen immunity.

Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.