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Keene State College, as shown in this file photo from July.

Despite the FDA’s full approval Monday of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, New Hampshire’s public university system, which includes Keene State, will not require vaccination this fall due to a new state law that prohibits such a mandate.

House Bill 220, the so-called “medical freedom in immunization” law, restricts the University System of New Hampshire from making the coronavirus vaccine compulsory, USNH spokeswoman Lisa Thorne said Monday. Thorne told The Sentinel in May, before the new law was passed, that the system would decide whether to mandate a coronavirus vaccine for students and employees “if permanent approval of the vaccines is granted by the FDA.”

For people 16 and over, this happened Monday morning for the Pfizer vaccine, one of three vaccines that had previously received emergency-use authorization from the federal agency. The FDA grants emergency-use authorization for rigorously tested medical treatments during public health emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Full approval came after the agency analyzed additional safety and efficacy data that Pfizer submitted in May.

But the new state law, which Gov. Chris Sununu signed late last month, makes it illegal to require a COVID-19 vaccine “in order to secure, receive, or access any public facility, any public benefit, or any public service from the state of New Hampshire,” including the state’s public schools.

Along with Keene State, the University System of New Hampshire includes UNH in Durham, Plymouth State University and the Concord-based Granite State College.

Although New Hampshire’s university system will not require a COVID-19 vaccine, Thorne said schools have developed their own individual plans to monitor the pandemic’s effect on their campuses, and mitigate the disease’s spread.

“At this point, our institutions have plans in place for arrival testing and surveillance testing and protocols around masking and other safety processes and are in regular contact with [the state health department] and healthcare partners for best practices, to monitor levels of Covid cases and keep current on trends that could impact safety,” she said in an email.

All Keene State students and employees will be tested for COVID-19 as they arrive on campus this week, regardless of vaccination status, college spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said. First-year students move into their dorms Wednesday, while returning students move back this coming weekend ahead of the first day of classes next Monday. Keene State has roughly 3,000 students and 600 employees.

“Last week, Keene State conducted more than 300 tests, which were all negative,” Ricaurte said in an email. “Weekly surveillance testing is planned for all Keene State community members during the month of September — at this point, there aren’t plans for [weekly] surveillance testing beyond September, but [the frequency of campus-wide testing] will depend on results during the month as well as case rates in the city and region.”

Anyone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus at Keene State will be contacted by the school’s Rapid Response Team, which will provide instructions for isolating, and quarantining for unvaccinated close contacts of people who test positive. Fully vaccinated students and employees who come in close contact with infected people will not need to quarantine, Ricaurte said.

Along with COVID-19 testing, Keene State will begin the new academic year with a mask requirement in buildings on campus, and for outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people, according to the college’s reopening plan. Moving forward, Keene State plans to adjust its COVID-19 protocols for masking, testing and limits on gatherings based on data, including case rates on campus and in Cheshire County, as well as vaccination rates for students and staff.

While Keene State will not mandate a COVID-19 vaccine, the college still highly encourages all students and employees to get the shot, and provide the school’s Wellness Center with proof of vaccination through a confidential online portal. As of Monday, Ricaurte said about 69 percent of faculty and staff and 46 percent of students have provided proof of vaccination.

“But our students haven’t arrived yet, and we expect an increase in documentation from across the college community quickly as the semester starts,” Ricaurte said. “We’re confident that the number of individuals who are vaccinated is actually higher — we continue to encourage both getting vaccinated and uploading vaccination proof to the college.”

At Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, the Monadnock Region’s other residential college, approximately 99 percent of students and 95 percent of full-time faculty and staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19, spokeswoman Kathryn Grosso Gann said Monday.

Franklin Pierce, which is not subject to the new state law because it’s a private school, is requiring students and employees to be inoculated against the coronavirus this year. Franklin Pierce students and employees can get an exemption from the mandate for medical or religious reasons, though unvaccinated people with an approved exemption must undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, Gann said.

Franklin Pierce has about 1,200 students and 235 faculty and staff members at its Rindge campus, and like Keene State is offering full in-person classes this year. Students began moving to campus last Sunday, and classes started last Wednesday. As of Monday, the university reported one COVID-19 infection.

This story has been updated to clarify how often Keene State plans to conduct campus-wide COVID-19 testing this fall, and correct the percentages of students and employees who have provided proof of vaccination. The college provided The Sentinel with incorrect figures prior to publication. 

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.