In My Words: The time has come for vaccine mandates in North Carolina

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Sociology Raj Ghoshal writes that a vaccination mandate will be critical to turning the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic. The article appeared in the Greensboro News & Record and the Burlington Times-News.

By Raj Ghoshal

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last week that Pfizer’s vaccine against COVID-19 has cleared rigorous safety standards required for full authorization. The announcement reinforces what has been clear for months: Anti-COVID vaccines, which have saved an estimated 300,000 lives in the U.S., dramatically lower the risk of hospitalization or death for vaccinated people, while helping to protect others around them.

Raj Ghoshal, associate professor of sociology

Unfortunately, announcements will not yield an end to the COVID crisis. Rather, the time has come for governments and businesses to strongly signal that vaccination is a public health priority.

They can do so by enacting evidence-based and thoughtfully designed vaccine mandates.

North Carolina’s county and city governments should require their employees, including teachers — and their contractors — to be vaccinated. Private employers concerned for their customers, employees and community should similarly mandate that unvaccinated employees begin vaccination.

Local governments should require that adults patronizing indoor recreational businesses such as bars, restaurants and gyms show evidence of vaccination, much like adults show proof of age to drink alcohol. If this mandate is slow in coming, recreational sites should act on their own and require vaccination for entry. (Indeed, a growing number are doing just that.)

The need for action is clear. While the first half of 2021 saw impressive 80-90 percent drops in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths in both North Carolina and the United States, much of that progress has been erased as the delta variant has gained momentum.

COVID’s fourth wave is hitting unvaccinated adults hardest, but others are threatened, too. Unvaccinated children are placed at risk when eligible adults in their community do not vaccinate. Mutations that reduce vaccines’ efficacy arise most often among unvaccinated people, risking everyone’s safety.

Businesses go under, employees are laid off, schools shutter, hospitals buckle and parents are pushed out of work when case numbers rise. A repeat of the losses of life, jobs and learning we saw during the past winter would be disastrous.

The policies proposed here are not radical. Rather, they follow the model of those adopted by several U.S. cities, dozens of major employers, over 700 universities and the U.S. military.

There is no question that vaccine mandates are legal, for the same reasons that governments can restrict driving privileges to adults who wear seat belts and are sober, ban indoor smoking in public venues and require that children in public schools be inoculated against smallpox. The constitutionality of vaccine mandates has been established since at least the early 1900s.

Indeed, the case for vaccination is so strong that even Fox News has recently implemented its own version of a vaccine pass program.

While a nearly two-thirds majority of adult North Carolinians have already had at least one shot, many others express openness to vaccination if required. These individuals rightly see that governments and employers make actions they truly value: paying taxes, showing up at work to keep one’s job, avoiding drinking before driving — mandatory, rather than leaving the onus solely on individuals.

Put another way, some individuals do not yet think of vaccination as a public good precisely because our institutions have not yet shown that they believe it is.

Similarly, though most business owners recognize vaccination’s importance, some have been reluctant to act without stronger support from government. Recent memories of being cursed at, spat on and kicked for enforcing COVID-related safety policies may explain this hesitation.

This is a case where only government action can free businesses to protect their own and their customers’ safety.

A small fraction of people have medical contra-indications to vaccination and should be granted exemptions, but most claims in this vein are specious. Some adults may nonetheless choose not to vaccinate for idiosyncratic reasons. They should not be forced — but neither should they be allowed to access recreational venues where they endanger others, nor should employers be required to accommodate recklessness, at least until the crisis wanes.

These steps will not immediately end the danger of COVID-19. Vaccination reduces the worst outcomes by “only” 90 percent rather than by 100 percent, and enforcement will require time to get fully off the ground.

But the empirical evidence is clear: Vaccination requirements work.

With the FDA’s decision, North Carolina’s road out of the pandemic is clear — but only if our business and government leaders help steer us onto it.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.