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.
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.