When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the University of Georgia’s campus last March, it brought an abrupt end to Danielle Waters’s freshman year. Classes were pushed online, events were canceled and students were forced to move home.
“It was definitely difficult because it went from that full freshmen experience — like football games and living with a roommate and dining halls and everything — to basically reverting back to before you even went to college and having to live at home,” said Waters, a sophomore finance and international business double major.
Since then, many classes have remained in an online or hybrid format, and college life has been fundamentally altered.
When UGA announced its plan to reopen fully in-person for the fall 2021 semester, it seemed like the year was taking an optimistic turn. However, in the wake of Georgia’s slow vaccine rollout, much uncertainty remains. Herd immunity by fall is a tall order, and there are still many questions surrounding the plan to reach it.
A catch-up game
Out of all 50 states, Georgia ranks last in the percentage of its adult population that has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC. At the rate vaccinations are currently moving, Georgia would not reach herd immunity before the end of the year.
While the virus isn’t likely to fully disappear, vaccines and herd immunity can keep it under control and prevent serious spread of COVID-19, allowing the world to return to normal. According to medical experts, the lag isn’t because of a lack of doses, but instead due to problems distributing the vaccine.
Roughly one-third of the doses shipped to Georgia have yet to be administered. Despite high demand in the metro Atlanta area, there are not enough available appointments, leading many residents to travel to rural Georgia for a vaccine.
Gov. Brian Kemp announced the state would be opening its first mass vaccination sites last month to try and expand vaccine accessibility. Other states such as Arizona opened similar sites as early as January, allowing them to distribute more vaccines early on.
Georgia has also expanded vaccine eligibility slower than other states. Right now, the only groups able to get the vaccine are people over 54, people with serious health conditions, people who are overweight, long-term care facility residents and employees, healthcare workers, emergency workers, people with disabilities, preschool and K-12 education faculty and staff, and parents of children with certain medical conditions.
Higher education faculty and staff are not included in the groups currently eligible to receive the vaccine. This, combined with the current plan to return to a normal schedule in the fall, concerns UGA employees.
“The general consensus among UGA faculty has been some level of irritation that the higher education faculty and staff were not considered part of the education tier,” said Janet Frick, associate professor of psychology. “In many other surrounding states, [higher education] educators were included.”
While some of her colleagues were eligible for the vaccine due to other reasons, she said not offering it to higher education workers is still an issue. Frick also said some of her peers who weren’t able to get the vaccine in Georgia traveled to Alabama, where people don’t need to present an address to get vaccinated and higher education faculty and staff are eligible.
An uncertain road ahead
As vaccine distribution continues to lag and the fall semester looms ahead, both Waters and Frick hope the university will prioritize the safety of students, employees and the Athens community.
Waters said she worries about the safety of campus community spaces and classes if herd immunity isn’t reached before the fall. She suggested the university should require students to prove they’ve received a vaccine before starting classes — similar to how the university makes students enrolling at UGA present an immunization record before registration.
“I feel if they don’t do that, it’ll just be the same situation of people who don’t take it seriously won’t get vaccinated, and then we are just in the same position we are right now,” Waters said.
She’s also concerned about the Athens community if UGA were to open prematurely. During the fall 2020 semester, Athens residents became concerned for the safety of the community as the number of COVID-19 cases both in Athens and at UGA surged. Athens also has a high number of Black and low-income residents, groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These groups are also being vaccinated at lower rates.
Frick said she’s satisfied with the work the University Health Center has done to test and vaccinate UGA community members. She also said that while it’s hard to gauge what the fall will look like, she hopes UGA administration and the University System of Georgia Board of Regents will pay attention to data surrounding case numbers and vaccinations when making decisions.
Waters wants the same, but said she’s doubtful due to the track record of the fall 2020 semester, in which the USG’s campuses remained open even as case numbers climbed.
“[UGA] made the statement so early about their plan for fall 2021 that I feel like they won’t want to go back on that,” Waters said. “They’ll just do whatever they can to completely reopen the university, whether or not it’s 100% safe to do so.”
Despite current issues, both Frick and Waters hope to be able to reopen safely in the fall.
“I think we have a reason to be optimistic,” Frick said. “Things will improve pretty dramatically as more people get vaccinated.”
Waters is looking forward to reuniting with friends and classmates if the university reopens in the fall, and is excited for extracurricular activities being in-person again.
The state government is also working to improve vaccination rates in Georgia amid criticisms regarding the current situation. The state opened five more mass vaccination sites Wednesday, and Kemp said to expect a large shipment of Johnson & Johnson vaccines to arrive in Georgia later this month.
“It’s been a slow start,” Frick said. “I think things are picking up now, but I think it’s pretty essential that [the university] not overpromise and underdeliver.”