TUPELO • Vaccinations won't be required of students, teachers and faculty at Mississippi’s public universities. 

During an emergency meeting on Friday, the State Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees voted against mandating COVID-19 vaccines for students and employees at the state’s public universities.

Despite two medical professionals on the board — Dr. Alfred E. McNair Jr. and Dr. Steven Cunningham — strongly urging their fellow trustees to mandate vaccination, the board ultimately voted 9-2 only to recommend those on any of the campuses.

McNair and Cunningham were the lone votes against recommendation. Both were in favor of requiring vaccinations rather than simply recommending them.

McNair is a board certified gastroenterologist and owner of Digestive Health Center, PA in Ocean Springs. He also serves as chief of medical staff at Biloxi Regional Medical Center.

McNair said he’s witnessed firsthand how dangerous the delta variant of COVID-19 can be.

"Taking care of these patients every day, what I'm seeing is younger patients are the ones in trouble," McNair said, adding that his hospital is currently treating patients as young as 14 years old.

In his call to require student vaccination on-campus, McNair didn’t mince words.

"(Students) need to be mandated to be vaccinated. This volunteer thing is ridiculous," he said. "If they had polio, it wouldn't be a volunteer thing. You'd have to have it done. This is bad. This is long-term stuff for some of these kids."

Cunningham, a board certified diagnostic radiologist and a full partner and current president of Comprehensive Radiology Services, PLLC in Hattiesburg, agreed with McNair that mandating the vaccine is the best way to ensure the safety of the greatest number of people.

"We've tried doing this on a volunteer basis, but I really think mandating is going to be the only way to help save some of these kids," Cunningham said. "That's just my recommendation. I don't know how to be any clearer on that."

But other members of the board weren’t certain mandating people take a COVID-19 vaccine would be effective or practical. Trustee Bruce Martin argued that, while he understands the situation, there's a certain segment of the population that won’t get vaccinated under any circumstances.

"Us mandating it is not going to make those people do it," Martin said. "And we've taken their money; they're enrolled in the school; and I don't know how in the world you're going to get people to be vaccinated by demanding they be vaccinated."

When asked how a vaccine mandate might effect enrollment, Dr. Alfred Rankins, Jr., Commissioner of Higher Education, said it's hard to say.

"Conventional thought would lend you to believe that, if you had students that were strongly enough opposed, either the student or their parents, that they did not want to be vaccinated ... may choose to leave the university," Rankins said.

Trustee Jeanne Carter Luckey suggested waiting, watching trends and revisiting the mandate option in the future.

"I know some people would say that was late and it would be better to do it now," Luckey said. "But if we mandate the vaccine now, it would be difficult to go back and say, 'It is no longer mandated.'"

Trustee Chip Morgan felt that while there may be public support – even universal support among health care providers – for the vaccine in the future, he said, "I think it would be unwise at this time" to mandate the vaccine.

"I just think at this time that would be a terrible mistake even though I fully respect what our health care providers on this call are saying," Morgan added.

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