Students going abroad face uncertainties over vaccine policies, possible travel delays

While some states are giving vaccines on priority to students going abroad, students are faced with uncertainties over getting the right vaccine and in time for their travel.
Student pushing trolley at Bengaluru airport
Student pushing trolley at Bengaluru airport
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With the Fall 2021 semester at universities in the United States set to begin soon, most institutions have decided to resume in-person classes, requiring faculty members and students to be fully vaccinated. For Karan, who is enrolled in a graduate programme at the University of Michigan, classes are scheduled to begin on August 30. And while he has been able to get vaccinated in his neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, he could only get access to Covaxin, an India-manufactured COVID-19 vaccine that is yet to be recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Incidentally, several countries, including the US, are not accepting Covaxin as it is not recognised by WHO.In Karan’s case, his university administration has been accommodative of the vaccine situation in India, he says. “If a student is unable to get a WHO- or US FDA-approved vaccine, we have been encouraged to take whatever vaccine is available to us. But we will be considered partially immunised and will have to continue to wear masks and follow other COVID-19 protocols in class until we are fully immunised with a WHO-approved vaccine,” he says. 

Reputed universities such as Columbia University and the University of Michigan have assured students that they will provide free vaccines for international students who could not be vaccinated in their home country. However, students like Karan, who took either Covaxin or Sputnik V, will have to undergo revaccination, the effects of which are, however, still unclear, causing concerns among students. Moreover, a lot of students still do not have the assurance of the university making arrangements for them once they arrive on campus. “While the bigger universities like Columbia have had the foresight and resources to arrange vaccines, not all students going to less-resourced universities have that certainty,” says Sudhanshu Kaushik of North American Association of Indian Students (NAAIS). 

Getting the right vaccine, at the right time 

On June 4, the Union government said that data sharing was still going on with the WHO to give recognition to Bharat Biotech's Covaxin, adding that India was pursuing it and wanted to achieve it as soon as possible. Students who took Covaxin are hoping for speedy approvals so they won’t have to revaccinate. 

While students who took Covishield were anxious over the 84-day gap between the two doses, as they were unsure if they could get the second dose before having to depart the country, the Union government, on June 7, said those travelling abroad for study or work could take the second dose after 28 days, instead of 84.  

Organisations like the NAAIS and several students have been urging different state governments in India to prioritise students going abroad in their vaccine programme. While some states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Maharashtra have made such accommodations, state governments also do not have uniform vaccine policies for these students, like the uneven policies at different universities. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, a medical officer at the Durgapuram UPHC in Vijayawada, said that only Covishield is being given to students going to the US or UK, while students going to Australia and other countries may not be given a choice if there’s a shortage of Covishield. However, the minimum gap between Covishield doses still stands at 84 days, he said. 

Telangana had earlier made arrangements for students going abroad at the IPM (Institute Of Preventive Medicine) in Hyderabad, where only Covishield is being provided. The Telangana government granted permission to shorten the gap between Covishield doses to four weeks so that students planning to go abroad in July or August can get their second dose in time, IPM Director Dr K Shankar said. “The CoWIN app has been tweaked with an exemption made for IPM to reduce the gap,” he said. So far, around 7,000 students have registered, and IPM plans to complete all their first doses within a week. 

Even if Covishield doses are made available in time, students who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are hesitant to take it, with the Union Health Ministry advising that vaccination be deferred by three months after recovery. For instance, Rishabh, who is going to the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, recently recovered from COVID-19. He plans to take the vaccine at Columbia. However, he would have to reach around six weeks before his classes start in the second week of September, to be fully immunised before attending classes. With the scarcity of visa interview slots across US consulates, students are also anxious about their chances of reaching the country in time for classes, after accounting for the quarantine period and getting the vaccine on arrival. 

Visa delays, administrative hurdles

While some students are opting to get the vaccine in the US, in spite of fears of contracting COVID-19 before arrival, many students simply don’t have the time to do so, as their universities require them to be fully immunised with a WHO-approved vaccine to attend classes. Even in cases where universities have assured vaccines, students are unsure of reaching well ahead in time, as it would take them about six weeks to be fully immunised in case of most vaccines. 

“We are worried about missing initial classes or having to defer to next year if the visa process doesn’t happen in time,” Rishabh says. “We were recently told that international students who are concerned about travel restrictions and visa delays must consult with Columbia’s international office, and late arrivals may be accommodated on a case-by-case basis for a limited period because their assumption remains that students will attend classes in-person,” he says, adding that in the absence of a centralised policy, there’s fear that things can change at any time. 

Karthik*, who is going to Georgetown University, says that September 23 is the latest he can enter the US for his course accounting for visa delays, according to his institution’s policy. Many students said that the slots have been extremely difficult to access. According to Karan, the website has been crashing often as thousands of students compete to book limited interview slots. Some students are only able to access visa interview appointments as late as January 2022, he says. 

Another student Roopa* says that apart from visa delays, amid the lockdown in Bengaluru, paperwork like getting transcripts from her university, and processing her education loan has been delayed. With all the unpredictability over vaccine policy, visa slots, and loan sanction, Roopa has paid for seats with two different universities. While her preferred university only admits students once a year, she has a backup admission at another university, in case she is forced to defer to January 2022. Most students are counting on getting their visa through an Expedited Appointment, once the start date of their programme comes within 60 days. 

(*Names changed on request)

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