Vaccination mandates are symptomatic of bigger problems in America

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Our nation should not need COVID-19 vaccine mandates, yet conflicting attitudes, perspectives and political leanings are making them necessary.  

Numerous highly visible companies have jumped on the COVID-19 vaccine mandate bandwagon. These include Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Tyson Foods, while some (like Walmart) have limited this requirement to management staff. Around 1,850 hospitals are mandating vaccination among their medical and support staff. The Vatican has even indicated that Catholics have a “moral responsibility to get vaccinated,” and priests will not provide religious exemptions to their parish members.  

United Airlines became the first legacy airline to mandate vaccination among their employees. Some will likely view this as a marketing tool to attract flyers who are vaccine receptive. Conversely, vaccine-resistant and naysayers may view this as a reason not to fly with them, believing that the airline is forcing some of its passengers to do something that they may choose not to.   

With the beginning of the fall semester approaching for colleges and universities, the number of schools mandating vaccination for their students and, in some cases, faculty and staff, has surged, now topping 750 schools.  

All these mandates represent a move to expand the war against COVID-19 from government into corporate America, health systems, faith-based organizations and educational institutions.  

Although many welcome such mandates, others who remain vaccine-resistant likely perceive such actions as infringements of their personal freedoms, citing that they alone have a say over what goes into their bodies. Clearly, anytime a corporation or institution either mandates COVID-19 vaccination or remains on the sidelines, they are subject to compliments or criticism.   

The bigger question to ask is, why are such vaccination mandates even needed?   

COVID-19 has proven to be a formidable and unpredictable public health threat and menace. Putting aside the death risk, around 10 percent of those infected experience post-COVID lingering symptoms like fatigue, brain fog and difficulty breathing. Therefore, fatality risk is a far too narrow measure of the impact of the virus on individuals.  

To put this into perspective, suppose you are offered a box of 200 chocolate glazed donuts. One of the donuts contains a poison that will kill you. In addition, 20 other donuts contain a substance that will make you unpredictably fatigued for several months. Would you eat a donut from this box?   

If the same risks were applied every time we drove our car or stepped onto an airplane, we would never use such modes of transportation.  

However, if a vaccine is available such that these bad outcomes would appear 25 times less frequently, the risk calculus changes so that if we were sufficiently hungry and enticed by the donuts, we may indulge. This is comparable to the annual odds of dying when driving in a car. For airplane travel, the risk reduction would be 50,000 times less frequently.   

COVID-19 is not the cause of the societal schism in America. It is, however, exposing and exacerbating it. This crack in society appears along the political fault line between right and left, but it runs far deeper than the superficial labels we use for our politics.  

If a Democratic president had spearheaded the development of COVID-19 vaccines, and a newly elected Republican president had espoused its value and implored everyone to be vaccinated, would the right-leaning president push for everyone to be vaccinated and the left-leaning refuse to be vaccinated? Such a counterfactual scenario is impossible to validate, but reasonably plausible to imagine, given how each party in Congress flip-flops their positions on issues when they gain or lose majority status.  

The worst aspect of the COVID-19 vaccine divide is that more conflicts await, whether they be fiscal, health or social. At some point in time, the societal fault line will crack, and both sides will fall into the abyss. Then everyone will lose.   

We need COVID-19 vaccine mandates to keep our lives and livelihoods healthy. At the same time, keeping our lives and livelihoods healthy should be sufficient motivation to be vaccinated, effectively making mandates superfluous.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy. 

Tags COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccines school vaccine mandate vaccine hesitance vaccine mandate vaccine-hesitant

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