The consequences of vaccine mandates

Justin Fan ’24

Many policies across the United States have led to heated disagreements over the ethics of vaccine mandates. The Los Angeles County School District decided to implement a controversial vaccine mandate for all public school students of age to receive a dose. It did so without religious or moral exemptions. New York has also implemented a vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers statewide that disregards exemptions characteristic of vaccine mandates in the past. Additionally, the New York National Guard is being used to supplement healthcare worker shortages largely exacerbated by the vaccine mandate.

Hundreds of workers have been fired or left due to these mandates, creating even more stress on remaining workers.

Recently, President Biden issued an executive order for a vaccine mandate for all government workers. Most health system leaders and professional organizations have been supportive of the requirement, the American Public Health Organization described vaccination as “the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all healthcare workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first.” Hundreds of workers have been fired or left due to these mandates, creating even more stress on remaining workers. The government mandate has come at a crucial time in the fourth wave.  

Although it has good intentions, keeping as many healthcare professionals as possible should be the priority to reduce the number of fatalities. Eventually, the mandate would have to be implemented on a national scale to stop the pandemic in its tracks, but placing additional strain on workers during this crucial time could be even more costly than intended.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school district in the United States with 600,000 students. On September 9th, the board made a unanimous decision to mandate vaccines for eligible students between the ages of 12 to 17, making it the first major school district to do so and setting a precedent for other districts to follow. The board made the decision behind closed doors and informed the public in a meeting afterwards, angering parents with a perceived lack of concern for what the community believes is best and giving them a lack of options and increased distress about safety. Several parents claimed that the decision usurped their parental rights while ostracizing families from in-person learning.

Arnav Sardesai receives his first COVID vaccine dose at the Montgomery Mall, May 13, 2021 – Courtesy of Arnav Sardesai ’23

Democrat Mayors Bill de Blasio of New York and Lori Lightfoot of Chicago said that “we just don’t think that’s the right thing to do.” Both New York and Chicago represent the other two largest districts in the country. Los Angeles Unified could serve as an example for other schools in the future but has left smaller districts conflicted on a course of action. The L.A district’s action “can provide the model for a comprehensive school response to COVID mitigation, so that schools can move on to student academic and mental health recovery plans,” Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University, said. The impact of this, if successful, will demonstrate that these sort of large-scale policies can be implemented, at least in developed environments like Los Angeles, while also saving hundreds of lives. 

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has only been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for ages 16 and up. For students younger than 16, the FDA has given the Pfizer vaccine Emergency Use Authorization or EUA. One consistent criticism from opponents of vaccine mandates is that the vaccine lacks any information about the long term effects due to its novelty. Many parents of Los Angeles Unified are concerned about the side effects, but still the Los Angeles vaccine mandate is set to begin on November 21st. 

As previously mentioned, the size and number of people in the district will create a large logistical hurdle as they begin administering vaccines and enforcing the mandate. Despite similar hurdles, towns, districts, and countries have been able to administer vaccine mandates with great efficiency and success. Already, LA country public health data tells us that 62.4% of LAUSD students aged 12-18 have been vaccinated. A key component supporting the vaccine mandate is the LA teachers union. 

With President Biden wanting to speed up the FDA approval process, we might see more mandates across the country and a return to normalcy.

“[With] so many educators being parents as well, we understand that many questions and concerns exist around the vaccine,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, the union president, said in a statement, “But these questions should not take away from the critical step that will keep our schools safer and help protect the most vulnerable among us, including children too young to be vaccinated.” With President Biden wanting to speed up the FDA approval process, we might see more mandates across the country and a return to normalcy.

On the other side of the country, New York has also begun the process of implementing its own vaccine drive for health care workers. Governor Kathy Hochul recently released a plan to increase the workforce in case large numbers of hospital or senior home employees don’t meet the state’s deadline. Specifically, it could mean declaring a state of emergency to allow healthcare professionals licensed outside of New York, recent graduates, and other retired health care workers from New York, to practice there. 

“We are still in a battle against COVID to protect our loved ones, and we need to fight with every tool at our disposal,” she said. Other options include deploying medically trained National Guard members, partnering with federally Disaster Assistance Teams, and exploring ways to expedite visa requests for medical professionals.

A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine – Spencer B. Davis via Wikimedia Commons

The labor shortage is due to pushback against the vaccine mandate, dismissal of unvaccinated employees, and emotional distress. An estimated eight percent of hospital staff are facing dismissal for refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by the state deadline. The state’s labor department has also issued guidance clarifying that workers who are terminated because they refuse to be vaccinated will not be eligible for unemployment insurance. Short staffing will only continue to increase as COVID-19 hospitalization rates peak and medical professionals continue to quit. Surveys of doctors and nurses leaving their jobs cite overwork, disorganization, lack of agency in the workplace, and, most tellingly, the trauma of witnessing so much death. Overall, the vaccine mandate comes at a difficult time, creating many issues that have exemplified the stress on the healthcare industry.

The widespread mobilization of the National Guard to fill positions underscores the state policy of maintaining production and reopening schools despite the catastrophic spread of the pandemic throughout the country. 

The National Guard is the primary reserve military force of the US and is funded by each state. It serves many roles in both the State and Federal level, but is generally called to assist in state-level emergencies. Deployment of the New York National Guard comes during labor shortages across the country.  In addition to being deployed to shore up vacant medical staff positions, the National Guard has been activated to drive school buses and function as nursing home caretakers, construction workers, school cafeteria workers and meat processors. The widespread mobilization of the National Guard to fill positions underscores the state policy of maintaining production and reopening schools despite the catastrophic spread of the pandemic throughout the country. 

With the many positions the National Guard needs to fill, it undermines the protection and law enforcement duties of the state while also taking labor from other parts of the economy. Crudely plugging in members to fill the holes in the labor pool will not only make it difficult for the National Guard to fluidly react to future disasters, but also put the members at a higher risk of infection, reversing the attempt to decrease infection rates. This attempt to supplement the skeleton-staffing at hospitals with military labor could create a detrimental ripple effect in other parts of the country. For example, the Guard may be required to work in other parts of the economy during a national emergency instead of enforcing order and helping the injured.

Staffing shortages have led to the relaxation of standards all over the country. The standards that we have set during this pandemic may come back to haunt us in the future when we must reorganize our healthcare system. A psychologically damaged healthcare workforce, a partly-experienced generation of staff, and frequent worker shortages are only a few of the outcomes of the current pandemic. The National Guard will need to play many different roles in the future due to their varied use in the current pandemic, creating the misconception that the National Guard is not an extra military reserve force, but an extra reserve labor pool. This idea that they can be taken from the existing labor pool to fill gaps will not be able to serve as a long term solution to the labor shortage. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating to us all, millions of people have been infected, their livelihoods destroyed, and loved ones gone. Communities across America have been in a tough battle with Covid for the last 2 years but now, we’re taking more proactive measures through vaccine mandates and vaccine drives. Though questions still linger if local governments or institutions have the authority to enforce these policies, actions have begun in the LA Unified School District and for NY health care workers. Though we are unsure about the effects of our current events, hopefully these measures will expedite the end of the pandemic