ANNAPOLIS – The author of a bill mandating students living in Maryland college dorms get a meningitis vaccine or sign a waiver said students’ lives are at risk because colleges aren’t complying with the law’s intent.
Delegate Mary Rosso, D-Anne Arundel, said schools should have complied with the law by June 1, but few institutions have. The delays and the uneven approach to administering the law, she said, could mean more teens and young adults contracting the serious disease.
“It scares me to think they might be exposed unnecessarily to the meningitis disease,” she said.
College officials said they are having trouble meeting the law because regulations haven’t been created and because they didn’t have enough time. The law was signed May 18, only 13 days before schools were required to comply.
Mary Ann Harder, a public health adviser with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, one of the organizations charged with creating regulations for implementing the law, criticized the Legislature for giving her organization and schools so little time to prepare.
“We were all very frustrated,” Harder said.
The bill was introduced in response to the increasing number of college students contracting the disease. Two Maryland students died in the past two years from meningitis. One of the deaths occurred just days before a hearing and vote on the bill, which has made Maryland the first state with such a law.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord coverings and is characterized by flu-like symptoms, including a headache, high fever, nausea, vomiting and severe neck pain and stiffness.
While school officials are all trying to comply with the new law, they are doing it in different ways and at different paces. Some won’t let students move in until they have complied. Some are giving students up to 30 days before they have to get their paperwork in.
Other schools have a stack of waivers waiting for students at check-in. Nancy West, director of University Health Services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, made sure students complied before they moved in.
“Either way, whether they wanted the vaccine or not, they signed a waiver to get their dorm key,” said West.
Rosso was critical of that approach to compliance.
“That’s complying with their version of the intent of the law,” said Rosso. “That’s not the spirit of the law.”
The waiver “was only meant in very small circumstances, not just as an expeditious thing,” she said. The idea, she said, was that schools would have the vaccination available the day students came back to campus so they could comply before moving in.
This is a challenge for some schools, including the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, that don’t even offer the vaccine in their health center because it’s costly to stock it, said Sharone Grant, director of the health center there.
School health officials said many students were signing the waiver with the intention of receiving the vaccine at a later time. However, Rosso said, “If it’s a problem where less students are being inoculated because it isn’t set up properly, then it needs to change for next year.”
Although the regulations won’t be outlined before January, according to Harder, she was critical of schools that hadn’t yet complied.
“I think the law, the way it was passed, was very clear,” said Harder. “There was no grace period given.”
Schools giving students time to comply will soon run into some difficult choices.
While some officials say they will force students to leave if they fail to comply after follow-up, Thomas Gazda, assistant director of Housing at the University of Maryland Baltimore campus, said, “I think it will catch up with them next time they try to register.”