No matter how badly Elissa Batiuk wants to get the COVID-19 vaccine, her chronic Lyme disease may prevent her from doing so, because she is unaware of how the vaccine could impact her health.
“It’s at a point where I wouldn’t be able to live my life fully because it could spiral into a flare so bad that I would have to drop out of school, and there’s just so many unknowns,” said Batiuk, a junior psychology major.
Temple University announced on Aug. 13 that all students and faculty must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15, yet some students may not meet that deadline for religious, medical or personal reasons.
Temple’s mandate followed the City of Philadelphia’s announcement that all healthcare workers, faculty and students of local colleges and universities must be vaccinated by Oct. 15, The Temple News reported. Medical and religious exemptions can be submitted to Temple by filling out an exemption form on the Patient Health Portal for evaluation by the university.
As of Sept. 3, 75 percent of Temple’s faculty and 87 percent of all students living in university housing have at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Temple’s COVID-19 tracker.
Local universities and institutions vary in the types of medical exemptions they accept, with some excusing only a few rare conditions while others require a note from the individual’s health-care provider, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
For Batiuk, just having a doctor’s note excusing her from certain medical practices was not enough to get her an exemption from Temple, she said. She had to complete an exemption waiver, which her Lyme disease specialist and doctor had to verify before she could submit it to Temple.
Batiuk feels nervous because the university has not accepted her request yet.
“The tricky thing is that they didn’t really give a clear cut answer if I’m particularly exempt or not,” Batiuk said. “They didn’t ever send me an email saying, yeah you’re exempt.”
Temple is going through several hundred exemption letters and vaccination records a day, wrote Stephen Orbanek, a spokesperson for the university in an email to The Temple News.
Batiuk has researched how getting the COVID-19 vaccine has impacted other people with Lyme disease, finding that other patients have suffered adverse reactions to their first doses because it caused their Lyme disease symptoms to flare, she said.
Lyme disease has been proven to cause weakened immune systems in some patients, according to the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center.
There is limited safety data on the use of the COVID-19 vaccination in individuals with an impaired immune system, according to the Center for Disease Control.
The lack of safety data makes it difficult for Batiuk to decide whether to get the vaccine, she said. Batiuk and her doctors are taking her case day by day to ensure she remains healthy and evaluating the research regarding Lyme disease and the COVID-19 vaccine regularly to see if one day she may be able to get vaccinated.
Even though Batiuk follows COVID-19 guidance, like double masking and getting tested, it’s still difficult to get involved in activities on campus because of her vaccination status.
Batiuk is thankful to be surrounded by friends who understand her condition, but also admitted it was upsetting to see other people return to more normal life after getting the vaccine, while she felt she is still restricted.
“I know there’s definitely opportunities that I’m going to miss out on because of this,” Batiuk said. “I am a psychology major, and to get involved with some of the research and stuff I know you have to be vaccinated, and it’s just not clear for my condition.”
On Aug. 23, the United States Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for individuals 16 years and older, announcing that people who are eligible to receive the vaccine should feel confident that it is safe and effective, according to the FDA.
The FDA granted emergency use authorization to the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 11, 2020, Moderna on Dec. 18, 2020, and Johnson & Johnson on Feb. 27. Emergency use authorizations allow the use of unapproved medical products in emergencies to help prevent life-threatening illnesses and in public health emergencies, according to the FDA.
Franny Owoh, a sophomore business and dance major, is still hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine despite the FDA’s approval, as she feels there is not enough research to certify their legitimacy, she said.
“For me there hasn’t been enough research over the understanding of COVID to really come up with a vaccine, and I don’t understand why society and the government are mandating it,” Owoh said.
There are potential side effects of receiving the FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, like headaches, chills and aching. These side effects are normal and temporary, and prove that the vaccine is working properly, according to the CDC.
Researchers at the FDA have conducted detailed clinical trials and analyses to prove the effectiveness of the vaccine, according to the FDA. In one clinical trial, the FDA administered the Pfizer vaccine to more than 20,000 people and concluded the vaccine was 91 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
As Temple’s Oct. 15 deadline creeps closer, Owoh is still deciding if she will get vaccinated.
“I have not fully decided on if I’m going to get it yet, even though Temple is making it required,” Owoh said. “I don’t really know exactly what to do. I just know that I don’t necessarily feel comfortable with the vaccine.”
Temple students who are not vaccinated by Oct. 15 will not be able to participate in in-person activities on campus, including group activities, gatherings and university-sponsored travel, The Temple News reported.
If students do not submit their vaccine exemption form by Sept. 17, or submit proof of vaccination by Oct. 15, they will lose access to all campus buildings, and their enrollment at Temple may be at risk for being canceled, wrote Mark Denys, director of Student Health Services, in an email to unvaccinated students on Sept. 9.
Owoh doesn’t feel like she’s being excluded from activities at Temple by being unvaccinated, because she wears a mask when she goes out and gets tested twice a week at Temple, she said.
Anya Tully, a senior health professions major, also feels as though she hasn’t been affected by her vaccination status despite not getting a shot and has yet to be left out from activities at Temple, she said.
Tully and her family decided to forgo the vaccine due to religious reasons. She believes that taking the vaccine is a sin in the Catholic Church, and that she has a right to follow her faith and her own beliefs.
“If I believe that withholding vaccinations is right morally, then I must do it,” wrote Tully in her exemption letter to the university. “I am exercising my right and free will to follow my moral conscience.”
Her mom and her faith taught her that it is sinful to put something in her body that is unnatural, and that God will protect her from harm’s way, Tully said.
Religious exemptions create a gray area for government and health officials as they try to balance the fine line between preventing the spread of COVID-19 while protecting individuals’ civil liberties and freedoms, NBC reported.
Tully explained in her exemption letter to the university that her First Amendment rights protect her from policies that violate her religious beliefs, which she believes should apply to her decision to not receive the vaccine.
Temple granted her a religious exemption, and she is allowed to continue attending in-person classes this semester as long as she gets tested for COVID-19 twice a week. However, as an aspiring physical therapist, her vaccination status and religious beliefs have affected her in the professional world.
“I was offered a volunteer physical therapist aide position at Pennsylvania Hospital, which is a very big deal,” Tully said. “It would look great on my resume and everything, but unfortunately they won’t let me do it unless I’m vaccinated.”
Tully has dealt with many conflicting emotions about whether to get the vaccine before Temple’s Oct. 15 deadline. Because of its potential impact on her career, she has experienced anxiety about her choice not to get the vaccine, and she struggles with doubts about if this was the best decision for her.
Batiuk has no doubt that she would get the vaccine if she knew there were no complications for her own health, and wishes it was easier for her to deal with COVID-19.
“If I knew I could walk into a clinic right now and get the vaccine and not have to worry about any of the side effects or how my body will feel after and still be able to live the high quality life that I’m living now, oh my gosh, I’d get it in a heartbeat,” Batiuk said.