This Idaho college gives students a choice: Get COVID-19 vaccine or pay for weekly tests

Micah Sharples’ most severe symptoms hit over the course of about 48 hours. She was coughing up blood and in extreme pain.

When she decided to go the emergency room, she couldn’t breathe unless she was physically upright.

There, she found out that she had multiple blood clots in her lungs. She was in the hospital for about 24 hours, is now on blood thinners, and still struggling with fatigue and pain months later.

After she got out of the hospital, she got the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as she could. The blood clots weren’t COVID-related, but now, because she is immunocompromised, she could end up hospitalized and in peril if she is infected with the coronavirus — even after being vaccinated.

“It is not something I would wish on anyone,” she told the Idaho Statesman in a video interview.

So when the College of Idaho, where she will be a sophomore, announced its new vaccination policy for students, which requires being vaccinated or paying for weekly mandatory testing, she was relieved.

It’s one big step to help her feel safer when she goes back to campus, she said.

“If you won’t do it for yourself, please do it for those of us who are literally scared to come out of our homes,” she said. “Because if we get it, the consequences will be so severe that we won’t be able to recover completely from it.”

The policy

The College of Idaho’s vaccine policy is different from most other institutions across the state. At the Caldwell-based college, students are given three options.

The first option is to attest to having received a COVID-19 vaccine. For those who aren’t vaccinated, they can agree to take a COVID-19 test each week, cover the cost themselves and report it to the Wellness Center. Lastly, students can apply for a religious or medical exemption, just as employees can at businesses that mandate vaccination.

For students taking the weekly PCR test, they can get it through the school’s Wellness Center, where it costs about $89, said Paul Bennion, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. C of I students can check with their insurance carriers on what is covered, or potentially find cheaper options, he said, but that is the option offered at the college.

Bennion said the policy is an attempt to accomplish one main goal.

“We want to be able to return in the fall, in full operation, in person,” he told the Idaho Statesman. “So whatever gives us the best chance of doing that, that’s our ultimate goal.”

But the institution is pursuing another goal: getting as many people as possible vaccinated.

“We’re an educational institution. We follow and study the science. That’s what we’re about,” Bennion said. “We know it’s the most effective way of getting us to the point where we can be safely in person, as a college and as a community. But we also recognize that people are kind of on different paths in terms of getting to that point. So we wanted to create some options for students.”

The policy applies only to students. The College of Idaho has worked closely with its faculty and staff regarding COVID-19, and Bennion estimated that more than 90% of its employees have been vaccinated.

The College of Idaho will continue to do outreach and contact tracing should someone test positive, and will follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials.

The college is also looking at the new guidance from the CDC that recommends masking for everyone while indoors, regardless of whether they are vaccinated, in “areas of substantial or high transmission.”

“That plan remains intact, although some modifications, such as a requirement for masking, are actively under consideration at present in light of revised recommendations from the CDC,” Bennion said. “As always, we seek a balance between the need for a stable working plan and the often conflicting need to adjust to changing conditions in real time.”

Vaccine mandates in Idaho have faced intense criticism and protests, particularly after major health care systems in the state announced that they would be requiring the shots for employees and contract workers.

But Bennion said the institution — which has taken a different approach — has been “pleasantly surprised” and “heartened” by the response it has received.

“We feel comfortable with where we’re going,” he said. “Our primary concern is with safety. And so we look to sources, the CDC and others, that provide that guidance that we feel like is most appropriate to keep people safe.”

How it compares to other colleges and universities

Across Idaho, most other colleges and universities won’t require the COVID-19 vaccine for students or staff. For public colleges and universities, it’s not even an option.

Gov. Brad Little in April issued an executive order banning “vaccine passports” — having proof one is vaccinated, essentially — which included higher education institutions. Little, though, has continued to urge Idahoans to get the vaccine, saying school could be interrupted in the fall because the state has so many unvaccinated people.

Public colleges and universities in Idaho have been encouraging people to get the vaccine and offering opportunities on campus, even though it won’t be required. Colleges have been calling the vaccine a key tool to slowing the spread of the virus and keeping people safe.

As coronavirus cases rise again in Idaho and the more transmissible delta variant spreads, some places, including Boise State University and the University of Idaho, are also strongly recommending that everyone wear masks indoors again, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. But those recommendations have not gone as far as becoming mandates.

Other private universities have similarly encouraged, but not mandated, vaccines.

Northwest Nazarene University said on its website that it was asking members of the community to “make informed decisions about their health and how they can best protect themselves and our community.” The university asked that all students and staff talk to their health care provider about the vaccine and get it “if advised.” But they won’t be requiring proof of vaccination to come back to campus.

At Brigham Young University-Idaho, in Rexburg, students are being advised to “carefully consider vaccination against COVID-19, prior to the start of the semester,” according to its website. The university said students should also keep wearing masks in campus buildings for at least the first two weeks of the semester.

Outside of Idaho, hundreds of colleges and universities have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for students returning to campus in the fall. The American College Health Association earlier this year also recommended vaccine requirements for students returning to campus.

‘Get the vaccine, please’

During her first year on campus, Sharples, who is on the swim team, spent the majority of her time in her dorm room taking online classes. She had to quarantine a few times after potential exposure to the virus, she said.

“You eat in your dorm, you sleep in your dorm, you do homework in your dorm, you go to class in your dorm, and you pretty much do not leave your dorm to do much,” she said.

Throughout the year, the college took steps to make her feel safer at school, she said. It enforced strict masking protocols. Athletes in contact sports were tested frequently. And on the swim team, they tracked temperatures and any symptoms to try to curb the spread of the virus, she said.

She was grateful school was online when she ended up in the hospital in March. There were no environmental or genetic factors that caused them — that she knows of — and it was not related to the coronavirus, she said. She’s an athlete, so she’s used to being tired and in some pain, she said. It wasn’t until her symptoms got really bad that she realized something was wrong.

It will take at least a year for her body to “dissolve the blood clots” in her lungs. She’ll remain on blood thinners to prevent more problems, she said. She’s limited in virtually everything she can do right now. She has daily pain, which can sometimes feel like “extreme stabbing.”

“Basically, I sleep all the time. I get my schoolwork in when I can,” she said. “I’m just pretty much home. So, can’t really do much.”

But she is planning to return to school in the fall — even though she’ll have to continue being careful.

“That is mostly why I’m very happy about the school’s vaccination policy, is because I actually feel safe returning,” she said. “If I get COVID, it tends to go to the lungs. And I’m personally vaccinated, but it goes to the lungs, and my lungs are very, very compromised at the moment. And I will probably end up hospitalized, or not make it, and that is not something that I want to have to go through.”

She still worries about heading back, especially as the delta variant spreads. She plans to continue to wear a mask, because she can’t afford to get sick.

“I don’t really want to know statistically what my chances are,” she said. “I just want to protect myself from it.”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, some people who get the coronavirus “develop abnormal blood clotting,” which can harm the lungs, nervous system and kidneys.

Even though her experience was not related to the coronavirus, Sharples is warning people to do everything possible to prevent a medical catastrophe happening to them as a result of being unvaccinated.

“You don’t want blood clots,” she said. “So if you have the option to please get the vaccine, please do.”

Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.