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Michigan Senate leader questioned universities on vaccines; they pushed back

Lansing — Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and the heads of the state's largest universities have quietly exchanged letters in recent weeks, disagreeing over decisions to require COVID-19 vaccinations on campuses.

On Aug. 11, Shirkey of Clarklake, the top Republican in the GOP-controlled Senate, sent messages to eight universities or colleges, saying he was "distressed" the institutions had "chosen to ignore" research on natural immunity, immunity gained after recovering from the virus.

Some of the education leaders, including multiple with backgrounds in medicine and public health, fired back at the lawmaker, contending that his claims were inaccurate and they were doing what was needed to protect their students. The letters were provided to The Detroit News by Shirkey's office and the universities.

The dispute comes as the Legislature faces a Sept. 30 deadline to approve the state's next budget, including the funding plan for colleges and universities. Majority Republican lawmakers could attempt to use the budget as an opportunity to tie future state aid to loosening requirements for vaccines. A House-approved proposal would restrict state universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccination to enroll in classes, attend in-person courses or reside in campus housing. 

In his letters last month, Shirkey asked university leaders for "further explanation" on their decisions to require vaccinations. He specifically questioned whether the goal of the policies was "health" or the "elimination of risk."

"As I am sure you are aware, much of the research suggests that most college-age individuals are not at risk of a severe negative outcome if they are infected," Shirkey wrote. "And it is possible that interrupting their ability to develop natural immunity may actually be counterproductive to their future health."

A "vaccine-alone strategy" to public health is incomplete, argued Shirkey, who previously had COVID-19 himself. He said the science is "sound around well-established methods for maximizing resilience to illness such as exercise, sleep, proper nutrition and vitamins and minerals."

"Additionally, despite the growing body of research that naturally acquired immunity is as good as or better than vaccinated immunity, I am distressed that your institution has chosen to ignore it," Shirkey said.

But Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz responded that her school had not ignored the data. Scientific research doesn't support Shirkey's "contention that naturally acquired immunity is as good as or better than vaccinated immunity," she wrote.

"In fact, the consensus from the scientific community is that even previously infected individuals like you, should still receive vaccination to protect them from re-infection with COVID," Hirsch Pescovtiz responded to the Senate leader.

Oakland University doesn't have a university-wide mandate for students, faculty and staff to receive COVID-19 vaccinations but does have a selective vaccine mandate for students in residence halls, according to the response from Hirsch Pescovitz. She has a medical degree from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and was the first female CEO of the University of Michigan’s Health System, according to her official biography.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services continues to recommend vaccination even for those who have contracted the virus.

"Yes, you should still get the COVID-19 vaccine, even if you have had COVID-19," according to a statement on the state health department's website. "There is not enough information currently available to say if or for how long after infection someone is protected from getting COVID-19 again; this is called natural immunity.

"Early evidence suggests natural immunity from COVID-19 may not last very long, but more studies are needed to better understand this. People who have had COVID-19 can still get a vaccine. CDC recommends getting it after you have recovered. You should check with your health care provider if you have questions."

WSU, UM reject claims

Likewise, Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, who studied medicine at Harvard Medical School, replied to Shirkey that there was no "body of research" that proves natural immunity is better than the protection provided by vaccination.

"As of today, evidence that immunity gained from infection is superior to that provided by vaccination is lacking," Wilson wrote to Shirkey on Aug. 13. "Indeed, there is strong evidence to the contrary, and current studies indicate that natural infection is accompanied by a significant and observable decline in neutralizing antibody in the three months following infection."

Wilson previously served as deputy director for strategic scientific planning and program coordination at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health, according to his official biography.

Wilson said the only way to develop natural immunity is to contract the virus, which "is dangerous and potentially deadly." There is "no scientific evidence" that the vaccine interrupts natural immunity, he said.

"Nor has the concept of interrupting or disrupting of natural immunity by any vaccine ever been shown in scientific, peer-reviewed studies," Wilson added. "In fact, ample data indicate that protection against COVID-19 following vaccination is likely to have significantly longer duration compared with protection provided through natural infection."

Wayne State University has imposed a requirement that students who want to be on campus must be vaccinated. Religious and health exemptions are provided, Wilson wrote in his letter to Shirkey.

The University of Michigan has a vaccine requirement for all students, faculty and staff on its three campuses. It also offers medical and religious exemptions. UM President  Mark Schlissel has a science background and studied at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In his response to Shirkey, Schlissel noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that those who have had COVID-19, like Shirkey, also get vaccinated against the virus. Research has not yet shown how long a person is protected from getting COVID-19 again after they recover, according to the CDC.

A viral pandemic is one of the few circumstances "where one person’s decision about whether to get vaccinated can affect another person’s health and well-being," Schlissel wrote.

"We agree with you that there is nothing anyone can do to fully eliminate risk, but the vaccination requirement helps us do everything possible to minimize those risks to our students, faculty, staff, patients, and community — particularly the risk of hospitalization or death, and the risk of transmitting disease to those who cannot be vaccinated," he wrote to Shirkey.

Likewise, Michigan State University has imposed a vaccine mandate, and President Samuel Stanley is a physician and an infectious disease researcher. While a "healthy lifestyle helps the body fight disease," previously healthy people are still stricken with COVID-19, Stanley wrote to Shirkey.

"At MSU, we have implemented programs to support students’ healthy choices for many years and will continue doing so," Stanley wrote. "We also have urged people to observe proven safety measures such as handwashing, masking and physical distancing. Those efforts will continue.

"We are not simply relying on vaccinations and mask wearing, but we do believe these measures remain the best path to returning to the in-person learning, living and working we all seek."

Spectrum's immunity exemption

Last week, west Michigan hospital system Spectrum Health announced it will grant temporary exemptions from its employee vaccine mandate to workers who can prove they have naturally acquired immunity to COVID-19. The health system will grant an exemption to those who have a positive test for COVID-19 plus a positive test for antibodies within the past three months.

The exemption was developed "as new research has emerged" on natural immunity, Spectrum said in a statement.

"While we still recommend vaccination for people with prior COVID-19 infection, according to this new research, there is increasing evidence that natural infection affords protection from COVID-19 reinfection and severe symptoms for a period of time," the statement said. "Current studies are not clear on how long natural immunity protects from reinfection."

In late 2020 and early 2021, the Cleveland Clinic studied its caregivers over five months for insight into how the immune system protects the body after a confirmed COVID-19 infection.

None of the employees who had confirmed positive tests for the virus and remained unvaccinated were re-infected, Cleveland Clinic said. However, the organization noted its study took place before the emergence of the more contagious delta variant and cautioned that more research was needed.

A separate study of Kentucky residents with past infections found those who were unvaccinated had 2.34 times the odds of reinfection compared with those who were fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

In August, Shirkey also sent letters to Albion College, Grand Valley State University, Kalamazoo College and University of Detroit Mercy.

Delta variant cited

Many of the university leaders cited the delta variant as among the reasons they pursued vaccination policies. As other states experience surges in the virus, Michigan's COVID-19 hospitalization tally has been slowly increasing for more than six weeks.

On Monday — 17 days before the deadline — Sen. Curtis Hertel of East Lansing, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said because negotiations are ongoing, he can't discuss the details of the higher education plan.

But Hertel said he is opposed to any attempt to cut funding for universities that require vaccines.

From Jan. 15 through Aug. 31, 93% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan have been among individuals who were not fully vaccinated, according to tracking by the state Department of Health and Human Services.