Let’s talk about this hot new idea, “vaccine mandates.” Conservatives across the US are up in arms (and I mean that literally, because this is America, so of course the people scared of needles own assault rifles and carry them with them to Panera) about the idea that they could be fired, kicked out of public school, escorted off airplanes, or not allowed to travel internationally because they refuse to get the safe, effective, and free COVID-19 vaccine. I mean, they could also die like all these people did, but they might also lose their job.
They’re so worked up because this is AMERICA, home of the FREE, and a vaccine mandate clearly goes against Joey’s FREEDOM to refuse the vaccine, post antivax memes that also manage to be racist, and then die of COVID.
Except…vaccine mandates aren’t new. They’ve been in place pretty much since the advent of vaccines, starting with smallpox in the 19th century. And since states and countries began instituting vaccine mandates, there have been people like Joey doing whatever the 19th century equivalent of posting racist memes and then dying is. Probably standing on a milk crate in the town square ringing a bell and shouting “SMALLPOX IS A LIE SPREAD BY RUTHERFORD B HAYES AND THE VACCINE CAUSES ONE TO TURN INTO AN IRISHMAN!”
So sure enough, soon after California passed a smallpox vaccine mandate in 1889, anti-vaxxers lobbied them into adding an exemption for those who are “conscientiously opposed” in 1911, and in 1929 they repealed the mandate entirely. And what was their specific conscientious objection? Nothing religious — it was freedom. They really just thought exactly what Joey thought before he died: it’s his bodily autonomy and he should be allowed to catch and spread whatever disease he wants.
Fifty years later, polio was ravaging the US and a vaccine was developed to completely eliminate it. Again there were mandates, and again in state after state Joeys popped up to lobby for exemptions — in 1959 Ohio it was Democrats who held up legislation on mandates due to anti-vaccination rhetoric. And again there were exemptions but they also started specifically including “religious” exemptions, thanks in part to the dedicated lobbying of another group — the Christian Scientists. That’s capital C capital S, not to be confused with the generic Christian scientist, that is a scientist who happens to be Christian like, say, Francis Collins.
To broaden the exemptions to more than just Christian Scientists, though, “religious” belief was often changed to “personal” belief. Here in California, they just went and made the exemption so broad that pretty much anyone could opt out for whatever reason they want. That’s not a huge deal if the number of people opting out is low, or all tucked away on their compound where they treat their cancer with homeopathy and accusing each other of malicious animal magnetism or whatever. It’s fine, the vaccinated public still reaches herd immunity, and the anti-vaxxers don’t riot in the streets.
But once the number of anti-vaxxers grows, as it did starting in the 1990s thanks to Andrew Wakefield (and then Jenny McCarthy, and then your new Jeopardy host Mayim Bialik), it becomes a problem. California had so many people opting out of vaccines that they started having serious outbreaks of measles, and finally by 2015 they had had enough and finally got rid of the vaccine exemption completely. No more religious exemption, no more “personal belief” exemption, no more “but my freedoms” exemption.
New York, Maine, Connecticut, West Virginia, and Mississippi (!) all followed suit and are currently the only states that don’t let anti-vaxxers off the hook.
That’s a good trend, right? Close the loopholes, get everyone vaccinated, no more measles outbreaks. And yet! In 2019, public health researchers published a paper looking at the rate of vaccination in California before and after they eliminated the exemptions. They found that the number of vaccinations didn’t increase — the people who used the loophole just found another loophole. Specifically, they went with the one loophole we can’t really close, which is medical exemptions.
There will always be people who are immunocompromised, or for some reason cannot get vaccinated, which is why it’s so important for the rest of us to get vaccinated — we can protect them. So those people shouldn’t be prohibited from public life just because they actually cannot get a vaccination without dying or being hurt.
So a lot of the people who were exempted from the vaccine for “personal beliefs” prior to 2015 just went out and found a less-than-ethical doctor to give them a medical exemption. Study co-author Saad Omer told WBEZ Chicago:
“What happened was there was a cottage industry of people giving medical exemptions that sprouted, but that was a small fraction. A bigger group just found other loopholes, like quasi-homeschooling. And so if you look at that trajectory, in two to three years there was an exact replacement proportionally for all the people who were getting religious exemptions.”
Omer and other experts think the answer to this is to allow mandate exemptions but make them super annoying to get. For instance, you could allow people to get an exemption only after they take, say, a semester of classes on basic epidemiology. Or make them watch slideshows of babies with whooping cough. Not only is it extra hoops they may not feel like jumping through, but there’s a chance that after jumping through the hoops they MIGHT realize why they shouldn’t opt out after all.
Omer points out that it’s a bit of a balancing act to get an effective mandate — not too strict, not too easy to avoid. But there are already people testing this. Take, for example, these absolute maniacs over at Conway Regional Health Services in Arkansas, where the CEO got sick of seeing a bunch of staff members say they couldn’t get the COVID vaccine specifically because of their religious beliefs, as the vaccines were developed using cells from aborted fetuses.
First, a brief fact check: the MRNA vaccines (from Moderna and Pfizer) were not developed using fetal cell lines. Here in the US, the only vaccine available that was developed that way is Johnson and Johnson.
Fetal cell lines DO come from aborted fetuses, but those fetuses were aborted back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Researchers took cells from them and multiplied them repeatedly — having the same cells used across multiple labs allows scientists to compare their data with as little differentiation as possible, leading to more robust results. It just makes sense!
That’s why these cell lines aren’t just used for (some) vaccines. So the Conway Regional CEO heard his employees’ religious concerns and agreed that they had every right to avoid products that in some way relied upon fetal cell lines. With that in mind, he says
“we provided a religious attestation form for those individuals requesting a religious exemption.” The form includes a list of 30 commonly used medicines that “fall into the same category as the COVID-19 vaccine in their use of fetal cell lines,” Conway Regional said.
“The list includes Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, aspirin, Tums, Lipitor, Senokot, Motrin, ibuprofen, Maalox, Ex-Lax, Benadryl, Sudafed, albuterol, Preparation H, MMR vaccine, Claritin, Zoloft, Prilosec OTC, and azithromycin.”
Ahhhhhhhhahahahaha, KING SHIT!
“Employees are asked to attest that they “truthfully acknowledge and affirm that my sincerely held religious belief is consistent and true” and that they do not and will not use the medications and any others like them.
“The intent of the form is twofold, Troup says. First, the hospital wants to ensure that staff members are sincere in their stated beliefs, he said, and second, it wants to “educate staff who might have requested an exemption without understanding the full scope of how fetal cells are used in testing and development in common medicines.”
I absolutely LOVE it. Because they recognize that this isn’t a religious issue — these people are ignorant, completely infested with brainworms thanks to Fox News and Facebook memes, and they’re reaching for any option they can find to opt out of the vaccine. This approach does exactly what Dr. Omer suggested: give them hoops to jump through, and along the way give them the chance to actually learn a thing or two. I love it.
I guess we’ll see what happens in this impromptu social experiment, and in the meanwhile I hope lawmakers and other employers are taking all of this into account as they figure out the best way to get people vaccinated and keep people safe even if they can’t get vaccinated.