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Health Care

Do We Want State Authorities Making a Coronavirus Vaccine Legally Mandatory?

(Schott AG/Reuters)

Every now and then, I think we have some state officials who are attempting to maximize the amount of controversy and public disagreement about the coronavirus pandemic:

Virginia Commissioner of Health Dr. Norman Oliver said Friday that he plans to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for Virginians once one is made available to the public.

Virginia state law gives the Commissioner of Health the authority to mandate immediate immunizations during a public health crisis if a vaccine is available. Health officials say an immunization could be available as early as 2021.

Oliver says that, as long as he is still the Commissioner of Health when a vaccine is available, he intends on mandating it.

“It [the coronavirus] is killing people now, we don’t have a treatment for it and if we develop a vaccine that can prevent it from spreading in the community we will save hundreds and hundreds of lives,” Oliver said.

Under current state law, only people with a medical exemption could refuse the mandate.

The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill during the ongoing special session that would allow people with a religious opposition to opt out of the requirement. The bill needs to clear a house committee before the full chamber could vote on it. There is no scheduled date for when the bill will be debated.

Because we live in an era of nearly endless bad-faith hot takes, let me begin by stating I want people to get immunized — for the coronavirus and everything else. Vaccinate your kids, and yourself if you’ve missed any, and get your flu shots.

But it’s not surprising that people would be at least a little wary about a new vaccine that will be the fastest-developed one in human history. I think that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other authorities here and around the world will be testing potential vaccines carefully for effectiveness and potential side effects. Almost every vaccine has potential for side effects, and most of the time they are temporary and minor. For example, the flu shot can cause soreness, redness, and/or swelling from the shot, headaches, fever, nausea, or muscle aches. Any injection can cause fainting. In almost every case, the temporary health side effect is worth enduring for the protection the vaccine provides.

But it is not surprising that some Americans will be less than fully reassured by either, “Don’t worry, the Trump administration says it’s safe,” or “Don’t worry, the federal government and this giant pharmaceutical company say it’s safe.”

What sort of deadline is Virginia envisioning for these “immediate” vaccinations, anyway? When the vaccine comes along, it’s going to take a while to get mass-production on a scale to vaccinate 328 million Americans anyway. We’re almost certainly going to start with medical personnel and the most vulnerable, and then move on to lesser-risk groups. Americans at low risk might well be waiting a few months. We can deal with what to do about anti-vaxxers, vaccine-skeptics, or severe trypanophobics when we get to that point.

Why is the state of Virginia already discussing legal mandates? We’ve got enough public paranoia out there already.

This is a task that calls for a campaign of public persuasion — “Here’s how the vaccine works, here’s how it can affect your body, here’s why it is important that everyone get vaccinated” — not another case of government officials emulating Eric Cartman and bellowing “respect my authority!”


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