At least 32 states have resumed the use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine, but Mississippi is not one of them. (Sipa via AP Images)

Mississippi universities can require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, despite comments to the contrary from officials at Mississippi State University and University of Mississippi.

Halfway down Mississippi State University’s COVID-19 “Vaccine FAQ” page is the question, “are students going to be required to be vaccinated?”

MSU’s answer, in short, is no: While it encourages students to get vaccinated for COVID-19, the university says that it can’t require the shot without action from the Institutions of Higher Learning, the governing body for Mississippi’s public universities.

“Mississippi law and IHL Board policies require that students obtain certain vaccinations before attending IHL institutions,” the answer reads. “This does not currently include the COVID-19 vaccine. Unless and until state law and IHL Board policy is amended, the University does not have the legal authority to require any additional vaccinations.”

That’s not the case, IHL spokesperson Caron Blanton told Mississippi Today.

While the COVID-19 vaccine is not presently listed in IHL’s immunization policy, Blanton wrote in an email that does not mean Mississippi’s public universities cannot require it.

IHL’s immunization policy “represents the minimum requirements that must be enforced by the universities,” Blanton wrote. “Additional requirements are not prohibited.”

Across the nation, more than 700 schools are requiring students or employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the fall semester, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. To date, no college or university in Mississippi is requiring students to receive the vaccine, though some are incentivizing it.

In a second email to Mississippi Today, Blanton elaborated that although “the general practice has been for IHL institutions to not impose additional requirements because (IHL’s) immunization requirements were crafted based on recommendations from the Mississippi State Department of Health,” the board’s policy “does not prohibit IHL institutions from imposing additional vaccination requirements.”

Past instances where IHL’s institutions have required additional vaccines beyond those specified in the board’s policy “have been limited to students working towards their program of study in a clinical setting (i.e., nursing and medical students),” Blanton wrote.

IHL’s current immunization policy requires Mississippi college students, with few exceptions, to provide proof that they have received two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Students who are involved in health education programs must also show proof of the hepatitis B vaccine. International students must also show they have been screened for tuberculosis in the United States before the first day of class.

Mississippi Today also asked Blanton about a report in The Oxford Eagle that said, “The decision was made by the Institutions of Higher Learning to not require students at any of its eight universities to receive the vaccination.”

“That is not correct,” Blanton wrote. “The Board has not taken action to amend its vaccination policy.”

Mississippi Today first reported in June that IHL’s immunization policy does not bar the public universities from requiring students to get the COVID vaccine. But university officials continue to say they can’t legally require the vaccine.

At a meeting of University of Mississippi’s vaccine task force last week, Noel Wilkin, the provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said that IHL must permit any vaccine mandates. His reasoning was based on “reading of the regulations and historical practice,” Joshua Sharp, a professor of pharmacology at UM and a member of the vaccine task force, told Mississippi Today.

Mississippi Today asked MSU and UM whether they intend to require the COVID-19 vaccine, given IHL’s statements that they are not barred from doing so.

Sid Salter, MSU’s director of public affairs, said the university arrived at its interpretation by looking at “the policies that have existed before COVID, and we looked at the policies that have been approved since COVID.”

“We also have consistently monitored federal and state public health guidance, and we have maintained a vigilant monitoring of local conditions,” he added. “But our legal team and our administration does not interpret the latitude you suggest that we have in the same way that you do.”

Salter would not say which policies MSU looked at specifically, responding only that the university has “spoken to these issues to the extent that we’re going to speak to them.”

Lisa Stone, UM’s strategic communications director, told Mississippi Today via email that, “While the university urges everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated, the Oxford and regional campuses of the University of Mississippi do not currently require the COVID-19 vaccine for employment or enrollment.”

Classes start this week at Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women, and Mississippi Valley State University.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.