On September 28, 2022, Phoebe Liou took the podium before the University of Connecticut’s Board of Trustees to make a statement, one that reflected her beliefs: that UConn’s vaccine and testing mandates for students were unfair and discriminatory, ultimately forcing her to sacrifice her dreams in order to stand by her convictions.
Phoebe was not a typical student. The daughter of Asian immigrants and homeschooled by her mother, she was admitted to UConn at the age of 16 with $50,000 in merit scholarships from various awarding institutions. She had already taken eight college courses at the age of 15 at four colleges and universities throughout Connecticut.
She was admitted to UConn as a biological sciences major on a pre-dental track, a decision she made following a mission trip to Mexico with the Chinese Baptist Church of Greater Hartford. During her time there spreading the gospel, she went to the Tijuana Landfill in Ensenata, Mexico and served the people who lived in the landfill. That memory in particular fueled her desire to go into dentistry.
“Coming back from the trip, I took only the happiest memories of the best smiles on Earth,” Phoebe said. “So, I wanted to give that to more people, and I thought one of the ways I can do that and serve other people is through dentistry.”
“When you don’t have that great of teeth, it’s a little difficult to smile, but smiling is such an emotional response and can bring up your emotions incredibly, as well as your oral health being a gateway for your whole body health, holistically,” Phoebe said. “How much nutrition you can take in depends on your oral health.”
Phoebe was admitted to UConn to begin classes during the fall of 2020. The state and country were still under COVID-19 lockdown measures and it was a difficult time to be a student: classes were mostly online, masks were required in public settings, and most social gatherings and events that typify the college experience were gone.
Despite that, Phoebe continued to excel. In 2021, she was on the Dean’s List, in the Honor’s Program and a Babbidge Scholar, meaning she was in the top 5 percent of the entire College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Most of her classes were online, but by her sophomore year she was fully in-person at UConn’s Hartford campus and, overall, things were going well.
By January of 2022, however, it was all gone. She was barred from registering for classes and lost all the remaining scholarship funds awarded to her.
What changed? In December of 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency authorization for a Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. By March 2021, the Health and Human Services Secretary issued a directive to make all Americans eligible for the vaccines.
Although the research behind these mRNA vaccines had been years in the making, the pandemic sent development into warp speed, perhaps the fastest development and deployment of a vaccine in history.
While the news was welcomed by the majority of Americans, there was a subset of skeptical individuals. There had already been a growing movement in the United States against vaccines already long in use and generally given to infants to prevent diseases like Polio, Hepatitus and Measels, Mumps and Rubella – vaccines that had been so effective that they’d largely wiped diseases like Polio from the public consciousness.
Accusations that these vaccines spurred autism in children had been circulating for years fueled by Internet blogs, YouTube videos, conspiracy theorists and, occasionally, medical professionals with questionable backgrounds. Adherents crossed typical political lines, ranging from naturopaths to upper-middle-class soccer moms to the hard-core religious who worried that cells from aborted fetuses were used to develop certain vaccines.
In Connecticut, a 2021 legislative push to remove the religious exemption for immunization requirements in public schools was met with strong pushback by fervent groups of parents and advocacy organizations. The legislation, however, was passed over those protestations.
In essence, the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying vaccines could not have come at a worse time for health officials hoping for quick acceptance by a public that was already fueled by social media echo chambers, skeptical of collusion between big government and big pharma, and deeply divided along political lines.
And while the COVID-19 vaccines were initially voluntary, the mandates by state governments and public institutions that required employees or attendees to receive this new vaccine or be forced out, quickly followed. Despite their skepticism, many who were hesitant to receive the vaccine capitulated in the face of a potential job loss or inability to attend classes.
Phoebe, however, was not one of them. And her firm stance has cost her the scholarships and education at the premier school she wished to attend.
“It is a renowned research institution,” Phoebe said of UConn. “They proclaim we want to follow the science, we want to follow the CDC, and we also support ‘my body, my choice,’ in many, many areas, but in this area related to COVID-19, we’re not doing as the law says, that we have the right to informed consent and the option to refuse an emergency use product. UConn was not respecting individual rights, not respecting my body, my choice.”
On June 4, 2021, the UConn Board of Trustees approved a policy requiring all students at Storrs and their regional campuses to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and report their vaccination status to the school. The university’s requirement came roughly two months before Gov. Ned Lamont issued a similar requirement for all state employees.
From a public health perspective, the policy made sense. Universities and colleges are filled with students who often congregate in close settings, live on campus in close settings and attend classes. Although their age group was unlikely to be at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, their older professors, parents and grandparents were in high-risk groups and the university saw the policy change as a means to protect everyone.
However, UConn did provide both medical and non-medical exemptions for students. According to the policy statement from UConn, “Students who receive an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement or who are not fully vaccinated prior to the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester will be required to comply with preventative measures as deemed necessary by the University. Such measures may include, but not be limited to, a period of modified quarantine, surveillance testing and mask-wearing.”
Of the more than 32,000 students attending UConn, roughly 800 applied for a vaccine exemption and reports indicated that 500 of those students had been granted that exemption. Phoebe was one of them. Her concerns were that the vaccine, developed quickly and utilizing new technology, could hold side effects and she was not comfortable taking it.
“It was very new. It was a novel invention,” Phoebe said. “It’s well known in the scientific field that new treatments and new products that come out on the market, you aren’t likely to see the side effects until multiple years later. It also happened that I know that the majority of vaccines take around eight years to develop and this one was developed in less than a year, so I had my questions about that. I decided to hang on for now because I’m not in the risk group and I took other preventative measures to protect myself.”
Despite the exemptions provided by UConn, the vaccine requirement was met with a lawsuit by students and families who believed the policy violated their constitutional rights. It was one of many lawsuit attempts filed against vaccine requirements by teachers, private and public sector employees and businesses across the country and, like those other lawsuits, was quickly dismissed.
Phoebe was not part of that lawsuit, however. She had received her exemption and was happy enough with that.
According to the nonmedical exemption approval she received on August 13, 2021, the university had several precautionary requirements, including pre-arrival testing, a modified quarantine for 7 days after arrival on campus and wearing a mask in all indoor settings, among them.
“Surveillance testing recommended,” the email granting her exemption said, but there was no indication in the email that surveillance testing was required, a distinction that would soon come back to haunt Phoebe. Since she was not living on campus and instead living at home, she was not required to do the pre-arrival testing, nor the quarantine. She continued to attend her classes throughout the fall of 2021, wearing a mask when on campus.
However, five weeks after the start of classes, Phoebe began receiving emails from UConn’s Student Health and Wellness Center regarding mandatory weekly testing, something she felt was at odds with the exemption language she received.
“The conditions on the exemption mentioned that surveillance testing is recommended so I agreed with that,” Phoebe said. “I think that it is fine to recommend that people take this health measure or that health measure. But it was the first week of school, five weeks after I got my exemption granted, I began receiving these emails about mandatory weekly testing.”
“I thought that was interesting, but because the exemption they gave said you’ve been granted this exemption and the testing is recommended, so I did not participate in it,” Phoebe continued. “I also had a class conflict that prevented me from going. It wasn’t until mid-semester that I began receiving emails saying that because I have not been testing, a hold will be placed on my student account and I will not be able to register for the following semester’s courses.”
While not spelled out in the emailed exemption Phoebe had received, UConn’s official policy statement said those who received an exemption “will be required to comply with preventative measures deemed necessary by the University,” and, “Failure to comply with this policy may result in loss of privileges and/or sanctions.”
At that point, Phoebe became concerned. A hold on her student account jeopardized her attendance at UConn, as well as her scholarships, so on a day when her class at UConn’s Hartford campus was canceled, she made her way to the testing site at Hartford Public Library, but the testing kit she was asked to take, left her baffled and confused.
The test being administered at Hartford Public Library was a saliva test by Spectrum DNA and the package said, “For research use only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.”
“I was puzzled because it says it’s an innovative DNA collection kit and it says it’s not for use in diagnostic procedures, but it is, you know, for research use only,” Phoebe said. “I can read and from what I deduce it tells me this is a DNA kit; you can’t diagnose and you can’t tell if you’re positive or negative for COVID with this, but I do know the DNA I give will be used for research. What research? I don’t know and since I don’t know, how can I give my consent?”
Phoebe wasn’t alone in her concerns about that particular test, as videos and social media posts — which have since been removed social media for false information — began to question why a DNA research kit was being used for COVID detection.
According to a December 2020 USA Today Fact Check, Spectrum DNA wasn’t conducting COVID tests. Rather they were merely providing the kits they normally use for a variety of DNA and RNA testing. The actual testing of the saliva sample was conducted by Vault Health, who said the samples were only tested for COVID and then discarded.
Like the vaccines themselves, Spectrum Solutions, LLC was granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA. Mandating EUA products, however, remains a legal gray area, according to a separate USA Today Fact Check.
Phoebe wasn’t required to use that test specifically. UConn allowed for other tests to be used, such as the nasal swab tests that were available through local pharmacies, as well, and upload their results to their student health portal.
But Phoebe wasn’t comfortable with those tests either because the swabs contain ethylene oxide, a sterilizing agent that can be carcinogenic but is considered safe in limited exposures. Phoebe did not consider weekly exposure to be limited as the half life for ethylene oxide is 69-149 day in the air and 12-14 days in water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
After researching the scientific and legal merit of the tests themselves, Phoebe and her mother, fearful that Phoebe would lose her ability to register for classes, began emailing and sending letters to university officials seeking an exemption from the testing mandate, an exemption she says a friend at the University of Rhode Island had received. Phoebe’s requests, however, put her on a bureaucratic carousel, all to no avail.
Phoebe emailed UConn’s director of Finance, who was charged with reaching out to students exempted from the vaccine requirement. He directed her to reach out to the Office of Student Health and Wellness, who said they were unable to help, but directed her to the Dean of Students. The Dean of Students said she was unable to help, and Phoebe finally reached out to Provost, who said he only handled academic affairs and referred her to the Office of Student Health and Wellness.
In her letters to various university officials, Shaolan Liou, Phoebe’s mother, outlined her argument that medical products under an EUA cannot be mandated and that members of the public have the option to refuse the product.
“By implementing this testing mandate, UConn is deliberately taking away each student’s statutorily guaranteed right to decide whether to accept or refuse administration of the COVID-19 testing,” Shaolan wrote. “The university is doing so openly, without any regard for the personal autonomous right of each student to choose whether they want to receive an unapproved, unlicensed medical product. UConn is effectively forcing each student to choose between facing the inability to register and attend classes from UConn or receiving an experimental medical research product to which they do not consent.”
However, according to emails provided, by the time Phoebe had reached out to the Provost, it was already too late. It was January 20, 2022. Classes had already begun without her and her scholarship funding was now gone.
“Remember that what I had agreed to and what I had signed on the exemption had said surveillance testing recommended, so that honestly is what I agreed to,” Phoebe said. “Now, with all the other things they decided to tack on after I had given my agreement, I had not agreed to those. I read the fine print.”
As Phoebe was barred from registering for classes and losing her scholarships, Connecticut was hit with a surge of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, sending infection rates jumping over 10 percent, prompting people to stay home and UConn to continue its restrictions leading into the spring 2022 semester.
Vaccine uptake at UConn was very high, with roughly 98 percent of students and staff vaccinated – understandably so when such vaccinations were required – and their rate of COVID cases was low.
According to UConn’s COVID dashboard, a total of 1,678 positive cases were recorded among the student population during fall 2021 and spring 2022, a positivity rate of 5.2 percent, 88 percent of which was concentrated on the Storrs campus. So far, there have been 565 student cases for the fall 2022 semester.
UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz says the university did not keep a cumulative tally of students with holds on their registrations for the Spring 2022 semester due to non-compliance. “It was a regularly changing number, since it was updated throughout the spring semester based on when and if individuals became compliant with the testing policy,” Reitz said in an email.
But as the Omicron variant came and went, eventually replaced with more mild strains of COVID, life in Connecticut and across the country began to return to more normal operations; mask restrictions were lifted in public schools and public venues, and people began returning to the office.
In March of 2022, the Connecticut State Colleges and University System, made up of 17 of Connecticut’s public colleges and universities other than UConn, issued an update to their COVID policies, indicating it would no longer require masking, vaccinations or weekly testing for both staff and students beginning in April.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state Department of Public Health (DPH) have issued updated guidance and mandates which have lifted restrictions on public activities. In particular, the CDC’s new metrics related to the virus have deemed that all of Connecticut is at low risk of spreading of virus,” CSCU President Terrence Cheng wrote. “Given these changes in guidance and through conversations with DPH, campus leaders, and COVID Coordinators, our consensus is that we are ready to relax our current protocols. Furthermore, although we had an agreement with the bargaining units on COVID mitigation strategies for the fall semester we did not execute an agreement this spring to continue those strategies.”
A few months later, UConn lifted its vaccination and weekly testing protocols for faculty and staff only, but continued to mandate both vaccinations or weekly testing for the student population. UConn defines vaccination for its student population as those having received the first two primary shots and eligible boosters.
Phoebe says lifting the mandate for faculty and staff was contradictory to what’s been well known about the COVID-19 virus since its beginning: that older populations are much more vulnerable.
“The CDC says that the older that you are, the more at risk you are for COVID-19, yet they remove the mandates for faculty and staff but not for the students,” Phoebe said. “We are at almost 100 percent vaccination rate at UConn, so this is a very, very small minority of exempted students you’re placing regulations on. The majority of people we come in contact with should be protected and safe from contracting COVID.”
And while Phoebe could have applied to any of the other colleges or universities in Connecticut that have since lifted their mandates, she remains steadfast in wanting to attend the school of her choice – UConn – primarily because of their dental program, which is among the top 15 dental schools in the Northeast and the top 50 in the country.
In October, the Atlantic published an essay by Emily Oster, an author and economist at Brown University who created a COVID-19 school data hub, calling for “pandemic amnesty.” In the piece, she cites information that has come out in the wake of the pandemic indicating that cloth masks weren’t effective in preventing spread, public schools were closed for too long and various restrictions made by states that proved nonsensical in hindsight.
Oster’s comments appear to be asking amnesty for government officials who, in the fog of a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, were grasping at straws trying to keep the public safe by means that ranged from simplistic and sensible to contradictory and ridiculous.
However, the messaging around vaccines also changed: the public was led to believe the vaccines would prevent infection and spread, but as COVID variants appeared in rapid succession it became obvious that this was not necessarily the case. The messaging changed to vaccination preventing the worst outcome of the virus, namely death. And to be certain, many did die, and in some cases, those deaths were regrettable results of refusing precautions, like the vaccine.
In October of 2022, the New York Supreme Court ordered that New York City sanitation employees fired for refusing the vaccine and not obtaining an exemption be rehired. The judge in the case ruled the mandate was “arbitrary and capricious,” because the mandate did not apply to everyone equally due to carve-outs for the private sector.
Judge Ralph Porzio also cited the fact that breakthrough cases of COVID occur, even for those vaccinated and boosted. New York City is appealing the ruling.
But if there is to be amnesty – and judging by the social media backlash against Oster’s piece, there won’t be – it should go both ways: not only for the authorities in power at the time, but perhaps for those who chose to defy those mandates and restrictions, regardless of their reasons which also range from sensible in some cases, to ridiculous in others.
Probably most people are aware of the numerous conspiracy theories, misinformation, rumors, faux experts and did-my-own-research types who fueled vaccine hesitancy and outrage during the pandemic. Regardless of Phoebe’s reasons, whether one agrees with them or not, she made her choice and, upon learning of the potential consequence, refused to budge. Since then has been speaking out on what she feels is an unfair practice at UConn.
“I was scared in the beginning,” Phoebe said. “Last year when I was still a student but on the verge of being removed, yes, I was very scared because I am a scholar, I have all these achievements, I have a good foreseeable future and I’m placing all that on the line if I do speak up. But now that UConn has decided to take all that away from me, what more can I lose? I really don’t have anything to lose.”
While Phoebe waits to see if and when she can reapply to UConn, she has not remained inactive. She has since become a mild-mannered activist, sharing her story and working with groups focused on ending college COVID vaccine mandates and providing community support like Northstar Students United and No College Mandates. She’s been interviewed and featured by the Brownstone Institute, Steve Kirsch’s Vaccine Safety Research Foundation and Children’s Health Defense, all of which are highly skeptical of the COVID vaccine and the government’s response to the pandemic.
“Those who are in a similar predicament as I am, being non-compliant, they’re afraid to speak up,” she said. “Think about it, K-12 we work so hard to get into the school of our choice. Then graduating college takes four years, maybe eight if we’re going to grad school, depending on the student. We’re putting all of that, our future career, on the line if we speak up, so this is one of the key reasons students are afraid and fear speaking out.”
But the COVID policy at UConn is changing somewhat, according to Reitz, including during this current fall 2022 semester.
“UConn does not have COVID testing requirements for the fall 2022 semester, nor does it have immediate plans to reinstate them unless a change in public health indicators requires the University to consider reviewing them as an option again,” Reitz said. “The vaccination requirement remains in effect, as do the opportunities for students to request and receive an exemption.”
Phoebe has also used her time to implement changes in her life and start exploring different sides of herself to fulfill other passions and interests. “Personally, it has taken an incredible emotional and stressful toll on my life, to be abruptly upheaved from my college life, but in the meantime, I have found other things to spend my time on that I find fulfilling,” Phoebe said.
She began working as an independent paid photographer and as a graphic designer for several companies across the U.S., a skill she picked up doing internships throughout her college experience.
“I’ve always been a creative and artistic person growing up,” Phoebe said. “Although I’m very passionate about science and the dental field, I’ve also not been able to run away from this artistic side of myself.”
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity that I am able to step back and do something different for a living,” Phoebe said. “But I still hope to be able to come back to UConn and finish my degree there and reconnect with my mentors and advisors, whom I miss very much.”