GRAND FORKS — Faculty, staff and students across North Dakota’s higher education system could receive the COVID-19 vaccine earlier than expected as the state moves forward with its vaccination program.

About one-third of the state’s residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and about 20% have received full coverage dosages. Direct numbers for the percentage of faculty, staff and students who have been vaccinated is not available because it was determined that data falls under private health information.

“We do know that there is great interest among the faculty and staff and certainly interest among the students in getting vaccinated,” Dr. Joshua Wynne, University of North Dakota medical school dean, said Thursday, March 25, during a State Board of Higher Education meeting.

Anyone over the age of 16 in North Dakota will be able to sign up to get the vaccine beginning March 29, including university students.

Earlier this semester, there was some concern about getting faculty and staff vaccinated, if they choose, before the start of the fall semester. Wynne, who has been heading the North Dakota University System’s response to the virus and who also serves as the state’s lead health strategist, said it’s encouraging news that students, faculty and staff will be able to get vaccinated sooner than originally anticipated. However, he noted there is some caution for how they ended up at this point.

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“The one caution I would say, though, is one of the reasons that we are ahead of schedule is because of vaccine hesitancy,” he said.

About 70% of those ages 80 and older have received the COVID-19 vaccine thus far in North Dakota, but the number of older individuals getting vaccinated has begun to flatten in recent weeks.

“If all 80-year-olds had been vaccinated, there would be less vaccine available for the rest of us,” he said. “So, while it's good news that we're ahead of schedule — and most of it is because of the phenomenal work of the executive branch, of local public health, of the pharmacies of the health care providers, etc. — part of it is because of vaccine hesitancy.”

Wynne said the university system is closely measuring the number of active coronavirus cases on the state’s campuses and any possible virus variants that might affect the schools.

Nick Hacker, chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, applauded the work of the university system during the pandemic.

“It has been quite a year of disruption, and we should be proud of how we've handled the pandemic here in North Dakota, and within our North Dakota University System,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go, obviously.”