Complaints from students in Monroe that they were unfairly targeted by a local medical school for refusing to receive an experimental COVID-19 vaccine have generated a legal battle involving the state attorney general.
Some students currently studying at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, or VCOM, in Monroe have been given the option to either get the vaccine or defer their education until a later time. VCOM operates on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
VCOM says 300 students are enrolled at the medical school, but only three remain unvaccinated. The vaccinations are needed, VCOM argues, especially for staff and students interacting face-to-face with patients.
Some unidentified students have possession of recordings of VCOM staff bullying them for their refusal to receive the vaccine, according to state Attorney General Jeff Landry.
“These complaints have included recordings of conversations with VCOM staff engaging in harassing and coercive conduct targeting students who have exercised their right to opt-out of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine,” Landry said. “Had VCOM immediately ceased retaliating against these students and changed its policies, last spring it might have avoided unnecessary litigation.”
Though VCOM claims it has granted some religious, medical and judicial exemptions, the medical school refused to grant a religious exemption to one of the three students, as of Tuesday. Since Tuesday, VCOM said it has neither granted nor refused a vaccination exemption request because the committee has not yet had an opportunity to meet and review the students' vaccination exemption requests.
The female student—whose name is being withheld from publication at this time—wrote a July 11 letter to VCOM identifying herself as a Christian seeking an exemption from receiving a vaccine because of the vaccines’ reliance on fetal cells. For example, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used cells from a fetus aborted in 1985 while fetal cell lines were used to test efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
“What the world considers a type of remedy, a privilege, and something to covet in 2021 but is something I consider an impurity, I do not believe that using fetal cells from an aborted fetus for the benefit of the greater good or my personal benefit can be reconciled,” the student wrote. “I will not knowingly participate in the process to use such a product that violates the right to life and dishonors the lives of the unborn.”
The student also noted the COVID-19 vaccines were approved by the government under an “emergency use authorization,” or EUA, meaning a person had the right to informed consent and the option to refuse.
In a July 14 email obtained by The Ouachita Citizen, VCOM’s vice president for institutional policy, Randy Schuller, responded to the student by offering two choices: get vaccinated or defer her education until next year.
“You must decide by July 19th, 2021, on whether to defer or participate in vaccination,” Schuller wrote.
In disputing the student’s concerns, Schuller predicted vaccines would prove useful by next year.
“You voiced concern that not enough is known about the vaccine,” Schuller wrote. “By 2022, the vaccine will have been used for a period of one year and on more patients than any other vaccine in a trial.”
Schuller’s email did not address the student’s request for an exemption on religious grounds, other than asking her to provide a “verified religious or medical contraindication.”
According to Schuller, the VCOM curriculum required student involvement in the performance of medical exams and supervised medical care of patients. The interaction with patients was the reason for the school’s mandatory vaccination, according to Schuller.
Schuller also warned the student she could face suspension or dismissal if the student continued this year without a vaccine or without wearing a mask.
In an interview with The Ouachita Citizen on Tuesday, the student said she had still not reached a resolution with VCOM, allowing her to study without obtaining vaccination. The only news received by the student was the publication of a new vaccination policy at VCOM, the student said.
“They posted a new COVID policy that is 11 pages, it’s a lengthy document,” she said. “It’s confusing to read.”
VCOM says it has not denied the student the ability to attend classes.
The student’s case constituted one of the complaints referred to by Landry, the attorney general, in a July 20 letter to VCOM, admonishing the medical school for mandating an emergency use authorization, or EUA, product.
Landry also wrote he would “pursue any legal means available to ensure that the rights of Louisiana residents attending VCOM are protected from both overt and covert coercion, harassment, and retaliation by VCOM for asserting their legal rights.”
EUA products, such as the COVID-19 vaccines, are optional, unlike other vaccines which have obtained a Biologics License Application (BLA) approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has not approved any COVID-19 vaccine for BLA.
“Fully aware of the differences between BLA and EUA vaccines, VCOM has misleadingly stated that ‘[t]his is the same as other immunizations a student must receive to enter medical school,’” Landry said. “But in reality, the COVID-19 vaccine is the only non-BLA vaccine that the school currently requires.”
Landry noted that VCOM, by virtue of its agreement with a state university, was subject to the state’s laws, including those allowing a student to gain an exemption by providing a written dissent.
VCOM responded this week to Landry’s letter with a statement criticizing the attorney general for incorrectly characterizing its COVID-19 vaccine policy.
According to VCOM, there were students and employees at the medical school who obtained exemptions for religious or health reasons.
“There are also other employees and students who wish to wear masks for their own well-being, even though they are vaccinated as there have been cases of individuals who were vaccinated who have contracted the Delta variant,” stated VCOM.
VCOM also said it informed the three unvaccinated students about how to request an exemption to the COVID-19 policy.
VCOM’s statement summarized its coronavirus vaccine policy but did not provide any copies of the policy or detail any particulars.
On July 16, two days after Schuller sent his email to the student, VCOM changed its vaccination policy. A copy of that policy was provided to The Ouachita Citizen this week:
"VCOM does not require every student to have vaccination," stated a July 29 email from VCOM Communications Director Desi Hammett, including the newly updated policy. "Students who elect to attend VCOM, who do not wish to receive the vaccination while still in the current emergency status for evaluation, have multiple options including, but not limited to: 1. Not to attend, 2. To defer their enrollment for one yar, 3. To be accommodated through completing all requirements except patient care duties until more information is known about the vaccine (currently estimated for January 2022) or the student may be placed in an alternate education pathway that defers only clinical involvement. For this purpose, a student may also need to defer patient care that is simulated (so not to expose standardized patients) or to classroom examinations and treatment modality practices performed on other students (so not to expose other students who do not wish to participate). These alternatives allow a student to defer or attend in a modified role."
In his letter to the medical school, Landry objected to VCOM’s exemption or waiver process.
“VCOM’s ‘waiver’ process also raises red flags because it appears to have been structured to deny waivers rather than provide any meaningful mechanism for notifying the school of a student’s choice to opt-out,” Landry said.
“VCOM ‘waivers’ for students with a medical or a ‘valid religious conflict’ are under-inclusive, but also futile and meaningless as VCOM has crafted a system that appears to be entirely constructed to override any objection.”
In its statement, VCOM noted COVID-19 infections were rising again.
“While all of the studies necessary to remove the vaccine from emergency use authorization have not yet been completed, the increased number of individuals who have received the vaccine as compared to previous trials indicate it is very likely that the FDA studies will be released this fall, well ahead of the earlier predicted January 2022 date,” stated VCOM. “To date the safety of the vaccine far outweighs the risks of the complications from the infection.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this news report, The Ouachita Citizen stated the student's studies in the fall were at stake if she did not obtain a COVID-19 vaccine. That was incorrect. The student is currently attending courses, so VCOM's response presented two immediate options: Get vaccinated or defer education until a later time. The Ouachita Citizen regrets the error.
For clarification, Schuller's email (with the student's name withheld) is published below along with VCOM's statement in response to Landry's letter.
Randy Schuller email to student:
From: Schuller, Randy <email@example.com>
Sent: Wednesday, July 14, 2021 3:23:16 PM
Cc: Sanders, Mark <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Showalter, David <email@example.com>; Kinnard, Nathan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
VCOM has removed the tuition charge from your account while you determine whether you wish to attend VCOM-Louisiana Campus this current year or to defer.
You must decide by July 19th, 2021, on whether to defer or participate in vaccination.
If you have a verified religious or medical contraindication, you may submit the appropriate form through the Associate Dean for Student Affairs.
You voiced concern that not enough is known about the vaccine. By 2022, the vaccine will have been used for a period of one year and on more patients than any other vaccine in a trial.
If this remains your concern, we have offered a deferral until the next academic year.
If you decide not to defer, recognize that the VCOM curriculum requires student involvement in patient care. The performance of medical exams and the provision of supervised medical care is a component of the curriculum and is the reason for the requirement (as well as the health of the faculty and staff, and the patients served by the medical faculty).
You must make your decision whether to fully enroll, where tuition will be billed, OR to defer until next year by Monday, July 19, 2021. Please inform the Associate Dean for Student Affairs of your decision.
If you defer, you will not be billed tuition until you return. If you decide to continue with the current class, you must receive the vaccination and demonstrate proof of vaccination (both doses if Moderna or Pfizer, or one dose if Johnson and Johnson) by August 15rd, 2021.
Until you provide the proof of being immunized (10 days following full vaccination), you will need to continue to wear an appropriate facial covering.
Recognize that, if you decide to continue this year, failure to comply with your vaccination schedule and/or masking requirement will result in your suspension until such time as a Professional and Ethical Standards Board hearing can be held, which could very likely result in a recommendation of Dismissal.
Randy P. Schuller
Randy P. Schuller, JD
Vice President for Institutional Policy and Administrative Law
Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine
VCOM response to Attorney General Jeff Landry:
The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) received a letter from the Attorney General’s office last week regarding the College’s coronavirus vaccine policy. Unfortunately, the policy was not accurately described in the letter, which was the first communication VCOMreceived from the Attorney General’s office. If a prior inquiry had been made, VCOM would have provided more factual information on the policy and its requirements. From the beginning, VCOM has committed to remain compliant with the laws of Louisiana. At this time, only three of the more than 300 students enrolled at VCOM-Louisiana have not been vaccinated. The avenue to request a medical, religious, or judicially approved exemption to the policy has been made available to those students.
As all are aware, coronavirus cases in Louisiana are no longer falling and infections are surging again. While all of the studies necessary to remove the vaccine from emergency use authorization have not yet been completed, the increased number of individuals who have received the vaccine as compared to previous trials indicate it is very likely that the FDA studies will be released this fall, well ahead of the earlier predicted January 2022 date. To date the safety of the vaccine far outweighs the risks of the complications from the infection.
Both the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) support vaccination. Recently the AMA issued a statement that they also support legislation that would eliminate non-medical exemptions from immunizations.
The intention of VCOM’s coronavirus vaccine policy, is and always has been the safety of our students, the safety of our employees and workplace, as well as the safety of the patients being cared for by our students, faculty and staff. Our medical students, in all years of education, will be caring for patients in the upcoming months and are considered medical providers.
In addition to requesting special accommodations for a medical or religious exemption to the policy, students enrolled at VCOM have other options, which include but are not limited to deferring admission for one year and beginning their studies the next academic year (when the vaccine is fully approved) and/or delaying the patient care portion of their education until after the vaccination is approved. The process for requesting the exemptions are made available to all students, and VCOM currently is following and plans to continue to follow such EEOC requirements.
VCOM received a letter from Liberty Counsel, the same letter a large number of colleges and universities across the country have received, about their vaccination policy. As with the letter from the Attorney General, the Liberty Counsel letter does not take into consideration if the College or University is providing exemptions for religious, medical, or judicially approved reasons, which VCOM does.
Certainly, VCOM has not condoned a “snitch” program targeting students who would not get vaccinated, as the Liberty Council letter implied. The comment is ridiculous, especially since VCOM has cutting-edge technology found in VCOM’s facility that allows the administration to monitor students’ adherence to all College policies while in the building.
VCOM policy requires students who are not vaccinated to wear masks while in the building. This is not a discriminatory practice, but instead, provides protection for any student or employee who is not vaccinated. There are both students and employees at VCOM who have exemptions for religious or health reasons. There are also other employees and students who wish to wear masks for their own well-being, even though they are vaccinated as there have been cases of individuals who were vaccinated who have contracted the Delta variant.
In response to the letter that VCOM received last week from the Attorney General’s office, the administration has responded in kind, explaining their position on the coronavirus vaccine, as well as their policy. VCOM has no interest in being the in the middle of any political battle. Their concern is, and always has been, for the health of the students, employees and patients that VCOM students will see in their early clinical experiences this fall.