BYU-Hawaii gets attention for not allowing unvaccinated student with special medical situation to attend

BYU-Hawaii has decided not to allow LDS student Olivia Sandor to attend because she cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19. Sandor’s case has gone viral — especially in the conservative on-line world — because she was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS), an auto-immune disease that temporarily paralyzed her from the waist down. She has been warned by all of her medical providers to refrain from getting the COVID vaccine as it could cause permanent paralysis or even death. Olivia says BYU-H was her dream school. 

Olivia’s story spread on TikTok and Instagram and was picked up by several conservative web sites, including Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA. Kirk called BYU-H’s policy “anti-science and anti-student.”

It is difficult not to feel sympathy for Olivia’s situation. I encourage all people who read this post to at least watch her three-minute take on TikTok (here is the link again). She is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. She wants to go to BYU-H, but she cannot go unless she is vaccinated, and if she is vaccinated she might suffer severe health consequences. She did everything possible to get a health exemption, but her health exemption was denied. She (rightly in my opinion) points out that if everybody else at BYU-H is vaccinated, why should they fear one person not vaccinated?

There is another side to the story, so please keep on reading to see more.

This story from the SL Tribune offers some more information that I think needs to be considered. BYU-H is the only BYU school that is requiring a COVID vaccine for attendance, but it appears to me this has more to do with Hawaii’s culture, politics and history than anything else. And the Church and its administrators have always been sensitive to Polynesian culture, so this is understandable. Here are some excerpts from the SL Trib story:

Church leadership instructed administrators at each school, (BYU-H spokesperson Laura) Tevaga said, to decide what was best based on local conditions and attitudes, rather than making a blanket rule. BYU in Utah and Idaho chose only to “strongly encourage” that students and faculty get the vaccine, not require it. Ensign College in Salt Lake City, also controlled by the church, did the same.

And it’s not a huge surprise, with their largely conservative student bodies that have previously fought a former requirement to wear a face mask on campus, with some students dropping out in protest over the rule.

Tevaga, though, believes the stronger call in Hawaii comes down to a much different approach there toward the virus — influenced by both longstanding culture and politics more than the church. And there has been little pushback by the students.

“Hawaii is a unique place, and it’s taken a hardline approach with COVID,” Tevaga told The Salt Lake Tribune. “The state has been closed down forever. It’s just slow, slow, slow to reopen now, and for good reason.”

Up until a month ago, people on the islands were required to wear masks even outdoors. They’re still mandated most places inside, and an estimated 96% of residents comply, according to a survey from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Tourists must also test negative for the virus before getting on a plane to go there.

Meanwhile, Utah’s mask requirement was lifted in April. Many people weren’t wearing them before that. And Idaho never had a statewide face mask policy.

Utah and Idaho are Republican states and Hawaii’s politics are as blue as the ocean. That has influenced the response to fighting the virus, Tevaga said. And BYU-Hawaii has largely fallen in line, despite its more conservative church leadership back in Salt Lake City.

It added its vaccine requirement shortly after the University of Hawaii System, which oversees 10 public colleges there, created its mandate that students get the shot. While other private colleges here and there in the United States — such as Brown University and Duke University — have done the same, it appears to be one of the few public systems to do so.

(There are, of course, medical and religious exemptions there and at BYU-Hawaii.)

BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III in a statement: “The decision to add this vaccination requirement was reached after careful consideration of available data about COVID-19 vaccination safety and efficacy and consultation with experts in medicine, public health, and epidemiology. This action promotes the safety of our students and our community.”

Kauwe added that the decision was supported by the school’s trustees and LDS Church leadership, which has offered “support for vaccinations in recent statements.” While that’s true, a spokesperson for the faith declined to comment, saying he would leave discussion on the matter to each school.

Tevaga said she’s glad the church allowed each school to “be responsive to local conditions, students and laws.”

And it’s more than just politics, she noted. Hawaii’s history as an island also contributes to the stricter, more aggressive take on combatting COVID-19.

Already before the pandemic, the school required vaccines — such as the tetanus shot and the meningococcal conjugate vaccine — that the other BYU campuses don’t. Students have to provide a note from their doctor confirming they got those shots before they can attend classes in person. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one more addition, and it hasn’t faced much opposition.

“We’ve always had different vaccines that are required here,” Tevaga added.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a Democrat, pointed to the legacy of invasion with the island in an interview with TIME magazine as part of the reason. Indigenous people, he noted, have seen firsthand what the spread of disease looks like when white people arrived. And now they take precautions to fight against that.

Foreign ships had carried epidemics there in waves, including cholera, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough and smallpox.

The American military overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. According to the U.S. Census, by 1920, the Native Hawaiian population had dwindled to just under 24,000 from as many as 600,000.

Caldwell said people there have not forgotten that past: “We have a culture here that comes from the first peoples, the native Hawaiians. The term kuleana … means responsibility, and it does pervade the people here in Hawaii.”

Part of its strength in combatting COVID-19 has also come from being an island, isolated from the rest of the world. That means Hawaii can better control who enters the islands.

My take: what we see here is a tragedy for BYU-H students who cannot or decide not to take the experimental COVID vaccines. But, to be fair to the school and its leadership, their decision is completely understandable, given the school’s location and Hawaii’s unique history.

One last point: how dangerous is it for a person with GBS to take the vaccines? Well, like everything else in this time of politicized science, the “experts” obviously disagree. I saw dozens of stories saying people with GBS should not get vaccinated for COVID-19, and even Dr. Fauci recommends that those with GBS should avoid the jab. But then of course there are other stories saying some of the COVID vaccines are safe for people with GBS. So, who knows? I will say this, however: the COVID death and hospitalization rate for young people is vanishing small, so trying to force this young person to take a vaccine that might very well kill her or paralyze her again seems a bit much.

I hope she is either A)admitted to BYU-H via special exemption or B)decides to go somewhere else for school or C)realizes that a college degree may not be the best decision in this day and age. There are lots of trade schools out there, and maybe she can make a better living starting her own business.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

15 thoughts on “BYU-Hawaii gets attention for not allowing unvaccinated student with special medical situation to attend

  1. I had wondered about this situation. I feel for the student but can also appreciate the decision to respect local decision making. Thank you for the new perspective.

  2. Rita, my understanding is that the MTC is asking people to be vaccinated because some foreign countries require vaccination. I guess they decided all people should be vaccinated if some are going to be vaccinated.

  3. If they limited the requirement to those serving in countries that require it at least that would allow those who don’t want the vax to still have the option to serve stateside and still have in person training. It’s too bad that now no one can have that missionary experience without compliance. My nephew is advised not to get the jab due-to past health concerns. And no exemption status is available to him. Very sad due to a virus with a 95-99% recovery rate.

  4. Since this isn’t even a vaccination, in the truest sense, I didn’t agree with keeping her out however, GBS can be caused by any viral infection, I don’t know why she would want to go there. After giving this some thought, I say, sorry Chicklet, I agree with BYU H. You have to respect the culture and traditions, which is a huge I amount of what makes BYU H, such a special place. Don’t harden your heart because you can’t go there, but remember you have other choices.

    Years and years ago I had the opportunity to attend BYU I, my own choice, and I regretted it every single day since. I think my choice has changed my life in every way possible. While I have a great life, wonderful husband and family, I did end up being inactive for a long time, and have many regrets about choosing the path I did. It’s been a struggle to have a life this good. I urge this young woman to think hard and pray harder, this may be a blessing in disguise.

  5. I think it was wise of the church to let each university make its own decision, and then to support each university in its decision.

  6. I’ve had Guillain Barre Syndrome. Got it from a flu shot 30 years ago. It’s a rare, but nasty and dangerous disease. I don’t do normal flu shots.
    That said, the mRNA vaccines from Moderns and Pfizer do NOT cause GBS. Of those millions of J&J shots given, only a few hundred have gotten GBS

    There is no reason for someone with GBS to not get the mRNA vaccines. No reason whatsoever.

    If BYU-H requires the shot, at least in this case, it should be a non-issue for anyone with GBS. Get the shot, or go elsewhere.

  7. “There is no reason for someone with GBS to not get the mRNA vaccines. No reason whatsoever.”

    Except when her personal doctor said not to. Perhaps we could show a bit of compassion for people just trying to make their best choices? Yes, she will have to give up a dream and go to a different school. That’s life, but give people some grace when it comes to these “vaccines”. I have a family member who cannot get a vaccination because of health issues — the hate & judgement he’s had thrown in his face is sickening.

  8. I’m going to agree with Joyce on this one. Here is what Dr. Fauci said in Dec. 2020 as the vaccines were being rolled out (including the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines):

    However, one group of people who shouldn’t get the vaccine, are those who suffer from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a “reaction, which is a rare neurological reaction to either influenza or the vaccine for influenza,” Fauci explained. “We recommend that those people do not get vaccinated because you might trigger a similar, serious response.”

    I am the first person to say that Fauci is the king of mixed messages. The guy has a new position on everything seemingly every day. However, if I had GBS and I were a teenager at very low risk from COVID and there was a CHANCE the new vaccines would be harmful, why in the world would I ever take the vaccine?

    I am aware that there has been new information available claiming that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are safe for people with GBS, but, if there is one thing we are learning about the pandemic it is that there is a creepy push by those in authority for people who are not a risk to be vaccinated, which goes against the science. The WHO has already said that young people do not need to be vaccinated, yet government authorities in the US are trying to manipulate children into take the jab. Meanwhile, a large percentage of the science regarding the vaccines is being suppressed. So, no, if I had GBS and I did not think like a complete lemming and had a scintilla of independent thought, no, I would not get vaccinated for COVID at this time.

    As I have already written, BYU-H has valid reasons for imposing vaccination as a requirement, and I don’t really blame the administration. But claiming that a teenager who had GBS should just suck it up and get vaccinated is, frankly, uncharitable and mean-spirited.

  9. What Joyce said. I understand the reasoning behind the policy but common sense says exceptions should be made under extenuating circumstances such as your doctor telling you not to do so.

  10. Well said, Geoff! Thank you for this article. It helped me to better understand the situation at BYUH.
    “Creepy” is right. I’ve lived long enough to recognize the many uncharacteristic aspects of this current craziness called a pandemic that seems nothing short of suspicious.
    In Taiwan, they disregard China’s mainstream media. Instead, their government has a special department dedicated to scrutinizing everything that is censored by the Chinese government. That gives them a clearer picture of where the truth lies. I think we’d all be better served to do the same. “Only if you’re unafraid of the truth will you find it.”.
    As for Olivia, I suspect at some point she will look back and see why this situation has a deeper significance than she can currently imagine. My dream to attend BYU only lasted one semester due to unforeseen circumstances. It took a long time to get over the disappointment. Hopefully, she will find “if not this something better.” Cheryl

  11. Cheryl, isn’t it tragic that a comparison between the CCP’s media and our media seems quite apt these days? I worked as a journalist in the late-1980s and early 1990s, and in those days they still understood the idea of balance and fairness. (I am not saying they were completely fair in those days, but at least there was a minimal attempt at fairness. There is no such thing as objectivity, but there used to be the idea that you gave the other side a fair opportunity to respond and of course you would never make up stories out of nothing, which is what happens today). I am not exaggerating when I say that when the mainstream media reports something today I automatically assume the truth is the opposite of whatever they are reporting. Very sad.

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