While KU touts big prize vaccination winner, group ups pressure for KU to increase COVID protocols

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on Sept. 13, 2018.

When University of Kansas student Santiago Patiño heard KU was giving away prizes to students who had been vaccinated, he was thinking fairly small when he uploaded his proof-of-vaccination form to enter the drawing.

“I thought I might as well enter and get a gift card or something,” Patiño said Wednesday.

He’s thinking bigger now after winning a $5,091 cash prize — the equivalent of one semester of in-state, undergraduate tuition — which the Missouri architecture student will use to help cover expenses in his final semester.

While KU leaders were touting their vaccination incentive program on Wednesday, other members of the university community were hoping KU would start thinking bigger about what it can do to require vaccinations, or at least implement stricter safety protocols.

A group called Vaccinate KU plans to hold a protest from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday in front of Wescoe Hall on the KU campus. The ultimate goal is to convince KU to test state law and require vaccinations for KU students, but absent that the group would like to see KU put other mandates in place.

Sophie Kunin, a KU senior and founder of the group, said it is frustrating to watch other organizations throughout the area implement stronger requirements than KU. For instance, she noted the host of concert venues that are requiring either proof of vaccination or proof of a recent, negative COVID test. KU — which started hosting football games, concerts and other large gatherings recently — has no such requirement.

“If the university took a stance like that for its events, I wouldn’t be as concerned,” Kunin said. “But right now there is nothing taking place, and I just see spiking in our future.”

A KU spokeswoman in early August said KU was open to the idea of requiring unvaccinated individuals to pass a COVID test before being admitted to certain events. But as event season has started, no such policy has been announced. The Journal-World on Wednesday asked whether KU was still considering such a policy and what factors had led it to not yet implement such a protocol. A spokeswoman simply said there was no new information to share on KU’s thinking about such a policy.

Some KU community members said Wednesday that they were frustrated by a lack of transparency regarding how KU is making decisions related to COVID policies.

“I think the strategy is to blow smoke in our eyes until we lapse into apathy,” said Town Peterson, a KU ecology and evolutionary biology professor who organized a petition drive last month calling for stronger COVID protocols.

KU recently has released COVID statistics for the Lawrence campus that indicate a spike in cases hasn’t yet developed since students have returned for fall classes. In the seven day period ending Sept. 1, KU reported 12 new COVID cases, and also said the vaccination rate of students living on campus was at 81%. That is higher than the rate for the Douglas County population as a whole. However, KU doesn’t yet have an estimate for the vaccination rate of all students, meaning it can’t yet say how many students who don’t live on campus have been vaccinated.

Kunin said she’s not optimistic those numbers will hold.

“After Labor Day weekend there is going to be a huge spike,” she predicted. “Then there is Halloween. There’s homecoming. There’s always an event.”

Kunin’s group is urging KU leaders to extend the university’s indoor mask mandate to outdoor spaces, and also for the university to make more efforts on the contact tracing front, among other initiatives. But Kunin said her group mainly hopes to convince KU to challenge in court a state law that KU contends restricts it from requiring a COVID vaccination for students. She believes KU might have good luck in winning a legal victory, and contends that KU won’t pursue the issue because it is afraid of angering state politicians who have fought against vaccination mandates.

A KU spokeswoman didn’t respond to characterizations made by the group but rather pointed the Journal-World to past statements from KU highlighting the efforts KU is making to encourage students to get vaccinated.

Those efforts continue with prize giveaways into October. The effort gained a new spokesman, as Patiño, the big prize-winner, said he’s happy to tout the benefits of vaccination. He got the shot early before arriving at KU, and is urging students who haven’t yet done so to strongly consider it.


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