COVID-19 vaccine exemptions make no sense

People are seeking exemptions to avoid COVID-19 vaccination. A closer look at them reveals that they are creating more harm than good, both for the people looking to get out of being vaccinated and efforts to end the pandemic.   

Many of these exemptions are in response to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. With the Pfizer vaccine granted full approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more colleges (now over 1,000 campuses) and companies are moving to mandate vaccination for their students and employees. There are good reasons for this. 

For organizations to function, they need to keep all their people healthy, and the most reliable way to do that in the current delta variant spreading is with vaccination. 

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Vaccine naysayers are calling foul, seeking any kind of exemption to avoid vaccination. A review of their objections reveals the fallacy of their position. 

Most colleges require student immunization against numerous infectious diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and meningococcal disease. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one more vaccine to add to this list. With students immunized against all such infectious diseases, the risk is reduced for pockets of infection outbreaks. The message that resonates well with students is that if you want to keep your campus functioning and classes in-person, get vaccinated. 

Corporate vaccination requirements make good business sense. Employees that are sick at home or hospitalized costs money. A vaccinated pool of employees is likely to stay healthier and function more productively, with fewer distractions of infection risk. At the same time, people want to keep working and earn a paycheck and the best way to do that is with vaccination, especially with the more contagious delta variant. 

With many such pressures, exemptions are what people view as their ticket to avoid vaccination. The most common exemptions cited are religious or medical. Neither holds much credibility. 

The Catholic Church has made it clear that vaccination is acceptable, and that Catholics have a “moral responsibility to get vaccinated” with vaccination described as “an act of love.” The Vatican also addressed the use of fetal tissue lines in developing vaccines head-on, providing a statement on this issue, putting closure on any such foundation for rejecting a vaccination.   

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The Protestant sect that has been most resistant to COVID-19 vaccination are Evangelicals, with over one in five opposed. Some in this group are vaccine resistant in general based on what they call moral grounds. Yet there exists no written church doctrine to support any such objections.  

Justification based on a medical exemption should be rare, at best. Physicians have indicated that no medical conditions exist that would prevent a person from being vaccinated, aside from a serious allergy to a vaccine component. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidance on this issue, offering pathways that encourage people to seek assistance from their physician and take alternative routes to find the vaccine that best works for them. The end goal remains vaccination. What is open for debate is the choice of vaccine. 

Even if a person is legitimately exempt from vaccination, their COVID-19 health risk persists. That is why Delta Airlines announced that any unvaccinated employee will be subject to a $200 monthly health insurance surcharge, to cover COVID-19 related excess health care costs. Delta Airlines self-insures its health insurance program, so higher costs of delivering health care come directly out of their bottom line. 

There are exceedingly few rational reasons to forego COVID-19 vaccination. People by nature make decisions based on factors that are more emotional than logical. To justify such decisions, they seek rational explanations, whether they be religious or medical. In this case, none of them holds much credence. 

The recklessness of vaccine exemptions is akin to exemptions to policies like not texting while driving, wearing seat belts while driving, or not driving under the influence. If you gain exemptions from adhering to any such safety policies, you will be fine much of the time, but when you least expect it, the exemptions can lead to hospitalization or death, for you and others.

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Any organization that succumbs to pressures to accept COVID-19 vaccine exemptions is complicit in keeping the pandemic alive and placing others at risk. We can argue about people’s rights to their bodies. We also have a holistic need to keep our nation moving forward to get past the worst of the pandemic and move towards the point that the virus is endemic, still present but manageable. 

Vaccination exemptions create headwinds to reach this endpoint and objective. Vaccination provides the most reliable and quickest pathway to get there.  

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 assessment to evaluate and inform public policy and public health.