In summary

More California colleges are planning to require students to get COVID-19 vaccinations. For international students, that often means only vaccines approved by the World Health Organization will be accepted, even though not all students have access to those.

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Update (5/7/2021): The World Health Organization has approved China’s Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use.

A growing list of California colleges will require students to get COVID-19 vaccinations as classes largely resume in-person this fall. For the roughly 160,000 international college students enrolled in California, the mandate introduces a new layer of complexity: Will the vaccines offered in their home countries be accepted in the Golden State?

The answer for an increasing number of campuses that plan to require vaccination is a partial yes. The University of California, which enrolls nearly 40,000 students from overseas, on Tuesday said in its draft policy that it will accept international vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. That aligns the 10-campus system with some other institutions in the state, including the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California, which enrolls over 10,000 international students. 

The policy at the California State University, the system of choice for about 13,000 international students, is still under development, said spokesperson Toni Molle. Stanford University said the same. 

The CSU, UC and USC all say they’ll begin requiring a vaccine for in-person activities once one is formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Right now all three vaccines in the U.S are being administered under an emergency provision. Stanford made no mention of waiting for that emergency-use authorization to lift.

COVID-19 has led to a 14% drop in international college student enrollment in the U.S. between 2019 and 2020, and an even sharper decrease among new international students.

In addition to the three U.S. vaccines approved for emergency use, guidance to American colleges says they can accept other vaccines approved by the World Health Organization. But of the five vaccines so far approved by the organization, so far none are ones that are produced in China, from which 44% of all international students in California come. India, another top sender of international students, has a vaccine accepted by the World Health Organization, but is experiencing a scarcity that may last months, the chief executive of a main vaccine manufacturer said

Yutika Khemka, an incoming UC Irvine student from Kolkata, India, said that given the vaccine shortage in her country, she would take whatever vaccine is available to her. She’s more anxious at the prospect of flying halfway across the world unvaccinated. “I don’t think we are in a position to choose,” she said. 

Easing the path for international students to get to the U.S. helps staunch some of the enrollment shedding due to COVID-19, which has led to a 14% drop in international college student enrollment in the U.S. between 2019 and 2020 and an even sharper decrease among new international students. Some public colleges have also become increasingly reliant on revenue from international students who pay several times more in tuition than domestic students.  

Students from countries offering vaccines without final approval from the World Health Organization shouldn’t be discouraged, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer at USC.

“We’re encouraging everyone whether they’re in the U.S. or another country to get the vaccine that’s available to them,” said Van Orman, who is also a member of the COVID-19 taskforce for the American Health College Association. The organization of college health leaders is advising campuses to accept vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, mirroring guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Students arriving to the U.S. inoculated with vaccines that aren’t approved by the U.S. or the World Health Organization may be revaccinated, according to current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. However, the same guidance says that no “data are available on the safety or efficacy” of receiving an authorized vaccine after receiving one that isn’t. 

While noting there’s no data on the practice, the UC is also proposing to require revaccination for students who are partially vaccinated or with innoculations outside the approval of the U.S. and World Health Organization. Students would receive approved vaccinations at least 28 days after they last received their other international shot, the UC said. 

“I don’t think people should be concerned about revaccination at this point,” Van Orman said. “What we don’t want to see is students who are in other countries delaying vaccination because they may need to be revaccinated when they arrive.”

But the unknowns about revaccination are “probably the biggest concern” among students, said senior Rex Zhang, a UC Berkeley international student living in China who represents international students on the campus senate. 

A college providing vaccines to international students is enticing to Matchamon (Nam) Pianapitham, an incoming UC Berkeley student who lives in Bangkok, Thailand. 

“I’d rather get Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson,” she said, listing the three vaccines available in the U.S. While the Thai government has approved two vaccines that are also accepted by the FDA and World Health Organization, Pianapitham doubts she’d secure inoculation in her home country. “We’re creating new records every day,” she said, “so I think they are vaccinating the more vulnerable people.”

Nam Pianapitham, an incoming UC Berkeley student currently living in Thailand, is hoping to get one of the three COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. Courtesy photo

Fall term is several months away, and more vaccines may be approved by then, including those from China. If students still arrive without vaccines or unrecognized ones, colleges should provide them, the association of health colleges said. That’s what USC will do for free, Van Orman said. 

The policy applies not just to international students, but to anyone arriving without a vaccine, such as U.S. students who couldn’t access one or whose parents didn’t believe in one.

The point is to vaccinate as many students as possible to tame the virus and keep the campus community safe. “Outbreaks have happened everywhere to everyone,” she said. Associating a disease with a group of people, “not only is it discriminatory but it’s bad public health.”

The Centers for Disease Control also requires all travelers coming from abroad to board their flights with proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Students with permitted exemptions from receiving vaccines due to health or religious reasons may be tested regularly for COVID-19, USC said, echoing advice from the college health association. 

Not every college requiring vaccines is sticking to only those approved by the U.S. and World Health Organization. Pomona College told CalMatters it’ll accept any vaccines offered abroad. 

Complicating things further for international students is the COVID-19-induced backlog of visa applications at U.S. consulates and embassies around the globe after more than a year of reduced operations. The problem is particularly pronounced in China, where only 160 student visas were processed last summer compared to more than 70,000 the previous three summers, according to reporting by Open Campus. 

“My concern for our students is really, are they going to be able to get a visa to arrive on time.”

Anna Wimberly, UC Irvine’s director of international student services

The most common student visa, the F-1, typically is issued for five years, so the backlog isn’t affecting students who already acquired visas before the pandemic struck. But first-time students admitted for this fall and last will be in a race against time to secure visas before the 2021-22 academic year begins late summer. 

UC Irvine, which enrolled the fifth most international students of California institutions last academic year, has 1,116 students enrolled in 2020 living abroad — and 899 of those students are in China. 

“My concern for our students is really, are they going to be able to get a visa to arrive on time,” said Anna Wimberly, UC Irvine’s director of international student services. 

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said interviews for student visa applications in China will begin opening this week. 

It could have been worse. Last week the Biden administration lifted travel restrictions affecting students in Brazil, China, Iran and South Africa. The administration is blocking most travel from India starting Tuesday, but clarified the ban doesn’t apply to students with visas entering the U.S. 

That’s still a problem for Khemka. She had originally planned to have her parents help her settle in at UC Irvine. But now, she’ll be traveling alone — if she can even get a visa in time. 

She said that the U.S. Embassy and consulates in India will be shut down until mid-May, and she likely won’t be able to get a visa appointment until August. That’s just a few weeks before she’s supposed to start classes. 

Khemka said she’s coping with the uncertainty around vaccines, visas and travel by taking it day to day: “If we continuously think about what’s going to happen in six months, it is very anxiety inducing.”

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...

Charlotte West is a reporting coach and training coordinator with CalMatters' College Journalism Network. Her work on education, justice and politics has appeared in national publications such as The Hechinger...