In the war against Covid-19, the recent emergence of the omicron variant might be our toughest battle yet. So it makes no sense to ease up on our defense strategies, or to give in to misinformation questioning the proven benefits of Covid vaccines. Yet, states and companies around the country are rejecting the Biden administration’s call for vaccine mandates, while evolving science about the vaccines — like the recent recommendation to avoid the Johnson & Johnson shot — is being met with fear.
Vaccines work and mandates are justified, both of which have been demonstrated by historical precedent.
Instead, we need to focus on the facts: Vaccines work and mandates are justified, both of which have been demonstrated by historical precedent. The only way to win this new battle is by doubling down on the protective measures that have served us well so far, despite our weariness over the ongoing pandemic.
The Biden administration is requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or submit a negative Covid test weekly to enter the workplace. The administration is now facing a lawsuit from employers who don’t want to cooperate. Many large businesses, including health systems, are arguing against a vaccine mandate, primarily because of staffing shortages.
This argument is unacceptable for three reasons. First, as the omicron variant continues to spread, the risk of staffing shortages is even higher among the unvaccinated, who are much more likely to have to miss work after contracting Covid or quarantining after an exposure. Second, they are also more likely to infect their co-workers and force them to stay home or quarantine, creating even more staffing shortages. Third, unvaccinated staff pose a substantial risk to other workers and vulnerable patients, particularly in health care settings, which means that the need to fill openings can’t take priority over the health and well-being of others. (And in spite of all these reasons to get vaccinated, the federal rule still offers an option to test weekly rather than get inoculated.)
Furthermore, it’s important to note that many vaccine mandates are already in place with no ill effect. For instance, vaccines for chicken pox, measles and mumps are generally required for schoolchildren. These regulations are in place to protect children and communities. With only 61 percent of Americans inoculated against the coronavirus, it’s important that Covid vaccines join this mandatory list.
Unfortunately, those who are hesitant to get vaccinated and point to concerns about their safety may feel vindicated by the recent advice by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that instead of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, instead get shots of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were preferred.
This seems to confirm fears that the science for Covid vaccines is new and that health directives can’t be trusted — only making vaccine mandates appear more unreasonable. However, more than 240 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine with rare reports of serious adverse events such as myocarditis, Guillain-Barre syndrome and anaphylaxis. The clotting event known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome that pushed the CDC to change gears on the J&J vaccine was only observed at a rate of 7 per 1 million vaccinated women ages 18 to 49.
Despite this being a rare occurrence, the availability of two safer options (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) led the CDC to advise against the J&J vaccine. In other words, it was less a statement that the J&J vaccine was too dangerous to use, but more a determination that other vaccines were even better choices; it would be wrong to read it as a sign that the science on vaccines can’t be trusted.
Vaccination still remains the best strategy that we have to prevent infection and transmission of any communicable disease, like Covid. Vaccines not only protect the individual against contracting the virus, but also reduce the severity of the infection and the risk of transmission. For instance, measles has been largely eliminated in the United States for more than 20 years. Prior to an effective vaccine for measles, more than 400 people died every year and more than 40,000 were hospitalized annually. A key reason lives have been saved is that public school mandates mean most children have been vaccinated, while clusters of measles outbreaks have been tied to a lack of vaccination.
We also must keep in mind that it’s not only protecting Americans from Covid that justifies stringent vaccine measures. Another relentless surge of Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths is predicted to result from omicron. Another surge doesn’t just mean we will lose more to Covid, but also that hospitals will again be overwhelmed, endangering more people with chronic diseases.
As health systems will again have to defer non-Covid care, delays could lead to the metastatic spread of cancer or progression of life-threatening heart disease while waiting for necessary testing and treatment. The CDC reported, for instance, that screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer decreased by more than 80 percent at the onset of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, data from the National Center for Health Statistics demonstrated that deaths due to heart disease increased during the peak of the pandemic. Conversely, emergency room visits for heart attacks declined, suggesting that people may have been delaying care out of fear of Covid exposure. This fear may, in fact, be amplified for vulnerable older adults if hospitals don’t require vaccinations.
We need to enter 2022 with a unified approach that prioritizes evidence-based public health policies, such as vaccine mandates, to end preventable deaths from Covid. We’ve already lost 800,000 Americans to this disease. It is dangerous and misguided to repeal vaccine mandates as we head into the busiest season for respiratory viruses just as the omicron variant explodes. At the same time, we need to be forthcoming about all the information we have — positive or negative — on the evolving science and the protective measures that work to prevent more lives being unnecessarily endangered.