With the CDC’s endorsement of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 years old, the debate has begun over whether schools should mandate the vaccine as a requirement for attendance, especially as mask mandates begin to slip away.
The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Office of Communications asked Heimbold Chair in International Law, Professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy Eric Feldman for his insights into when and how we might see vaccine mandates for school-aged children unfold. Feldman is also the Deputy Dean for International Programs and a widely quoted expert on vaccination policies.
Office of Communications: Do you think there should be a vaccine mandate for the 5-11 age group?
Feldman: From a public health perspective – and based upon the data we have on the vaccine for this age group – I think a mandate would have positive outcomes. At this time, however, it likely isn’t prudent given that 1) it was just approved under EUA [Emergency Use Authorization] by the CDC and FDA, and 2) polling suggests that somewhere between 30-50% of parents with children in this age group are hesitant to vaccinate their children with the Covid-19 vaccine. A mandate only succeeds if people are willing to go along with it; if parents are already hesitant, a mandate at this time might only exacerbate some of the social unrest we’ve seen at the local level around other mandates, such as the use of masks in schools.
Rather, I would focus on finding a way to encourage parents to vaccinate their children that isn’t divisive. I think the more choices we can offer people, the better, i.e., get vaccinated or be tested regularly, or homeschool, or unvaccinated kids must remain masked while vaccinated kids can go unmasked. I think providing choice, rather than pulling choice away, helps to incentivize people towards decisions that positively impact public health.
Additionally, I think it’s prudent for public health officials to communicate better with the public to not only help them understand the risks and benefits of vaccination but also to underscore the notion that the freedom to make particular choices about one’s health is limited when those choices affect the well-being of others. I think that’s an incredibly important piece of this and something that has been absolutely lost in the debate about individual rights and parental choice.
Office of Communications: How would you incentivize parents to get their kids vaccinated?
Feldman: In Massachusetts, masks are currently required in all K-12 schools. Schools have the option to lift the requirement, however, if they can prove that at least 80% of students and faculty have been vaccinated. So, the incentive of being able to return to a more normal school environment is very desirable to parents, students, and teachers alike.
It’s worth noting that we now have vaccination rates among the adult population that are well over 70%, and that may happen with kids as well. For example, in a class of 35 kids in the public school, 6 of them will be vaccinated and parents see they’re just fine. Then another will get vaccinated, and then another, and it may snowball in that way so the powerful resistance we’re seeing among parents may start to whittle down due to experience.
Office of Communications: The Philadelphia School District has mandated that all students participating in interscholastic sports be vaccinated for winter and spring unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption. Do you think this is advisable?
Feldman: I think it’s better than nothing, but it’s a poor substitute for a general mandate. I don’t think a patchwork approach to identifying this group of kids, but not that group of kids, is going to be terribly effective.
Office of Communications: Can you talk about potential lawsuits and legal ramifications for vaccine mandates?
Feldman: There have been an extraordinary number of lawsuits brought around mandates at all levels in both the private and public sectors, and hospitals, universities, etc. People are taking this as an issue that says something about who they are and what their values are as Americans.
I don’t think we’re going to see any of these reaching a final disposition from a court in favor of the plaintiffs. But that doesn’t mean the lawsuits didn’t succeed. The lawsuits get press coverage. They are raised on Fox News. They’re raised in The New York Times. The media is interested in this conflict around basic American values that are being laid out in the vaccine area. So, in some ways, it matters less what the ultimate legal disposition of lawsuits are than the fact that there’s so many of them being filed and they are receiving widespread attention.