University of Wisconsin System campuses are taking different approaches as COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadlines near for federal contractors.
UW System interim President Tommy Thompson announced in late October the state's campuses would comply with President Joe Biden's executive order mandating vaccinations for federal employees and federal contractors.
Thompson said in a statement the system "cannot afford to jeopardize millions of dollars in federal contracts, which are integral to our academic research missions."
The statement was broad and didn't include important details like which campuses might be affected by Biden's order and whether UW mandates would require vaccinations for all employees or just those working on research projects funded by federal agencies.
The next day, Thompson told Kenosha News that UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Superior had federal contracts that fell under Biden's mandate.
"It’s not federal grants, it’s federal contracts, and I want to make sure that those four universities are able to maintain," said Thompson.
On Nov. 11, UW-Madison announced all employees, even student employees, would be required to receive their doses of COVID-19 vaccine no later than Jan. 4 to comply with the federal order and not risk the loss of federal funds. As of Friday, the university reported 95.4 percent of employees have already been vaccinated.
The campus said employees who don't comply with the requirement or receive an accommodation allowed under the federal order "will face sanctions that will begin with education and will lead to discipline possibly culminating in termination."
That same day, UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone sent a similar, though less concrete, message to employees. He said the campus was indeed a federal contractor and the vaccine requirement would apply to employees and student employees.
"We do not yet know the potential outcome of pending legal challenges and ask you to pay very close attention to announcements in the near future," said Mone. "In the meantime, I encourage all faculty and staff to take steps as if a vaccine mandate will be imposed."
Mone's message also said the vaccine requirement would apply effective Jan. 18. That's the date Biden's mandate requires federal contractors to be fully immunized by, which is two weeks after the Jan. 4 deadline for contractors to finish their vaccine series. Mone also noted that 83 percent of employees and 92 percent of students had been immunized against COVID-19.
Stan Yasaitis is a UW-Milwaukee university services assistant and chair of the university staff senate. He told WPR it shouldn't be that hard to get the remaining employees vaccinated, though some coworkers he's talked with are adamantly opposed to getting the shots.
"I'm sure that there's legitimate religious and medical reasons for some of those 20 percent not to get vaccinated. And there's ways to deal with that," said Yasaitis. "But I think most of the people not vaccinated are being stubborn."
Yasaitis lamented that COVID-19 vaccination has become politicized, placing some of the blame on Wisconsin Republican lawmakers who have opposed vaccine requirements.
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"I wish our university leaders would come right out and say that publicly, repeatedly," said Yasaitis. "But they have to play a game called politics. So no one is saying that. I will, but I'm just a small part in a big wheel."
On Nov. 12, UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Thomas Gibson told employees the campus receives more than $3.5 million in federal contract funding, though it is "unclear if the federal contracts that benefit UW-Stevens Point are subject to the executive order requiring vaccines." Still, Gibson said they should prepare for the federal mandate.
"While the order is fluid, we encourage all employees to take immediate steps as if a vaccine mandate will be imposed," said Gibson.
Nerissa Nelson is a librarian at UW-Stevens Point and chair's the campus' Common Council. She told WPR that campus officials are still talking with UW System about the federal mandate and the employee vaccination rate is already over 90 percent.
"And the part that's unclear is whether the executive order will affect the entire campus or if it will just be people on our campus that are related to those federal contracts," said Nelson.
UW-Stevens Point student and current Student Government Association President Will Scheder told WPR the situation is "really complicated" because of changing federal deadlines and a series of court challenges to Biden's executive order.
"So, now we're really just waiting for those court cases to go through and for the federal government to give its final guidance ... so we can give our final guidance," said Scheder.
A UW-Superior spokesperson told WPR campus leaders are in discussions with UW System about any possible impact the executive order may have on the campus.
While Thompson never mentioned UW-La Crosse, campus spokesperson Kyle Farris told WPR that approximately 30 employees would "potentially be impacted by a federal vaccination mandate due to their work related to federal contracts and cooperative agreements."
"At UWL, there are no current plans for a broader, institution-wide mandate for proof of vaccination," said Farris.
Farris later told WPR the employees in question are students working with the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center.
As some campus officials wait for a final answer about which campuses and employees might be impacted by Biden's executive order, federal vaccination deadlines are fast approaching. It takes 21 days to complete the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination series. For the Moderna series, it's 28 days. That means UW employees choosing the Moderna vaccine would have to get their first shot by Dec. 7. For those choosing the Pfizer vaccine, a first shot would have to happen by Dec. 14. Federal contractors can also comply with the mandate by getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Editor's note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.