When it’s isolated and examined, the decision by the University of California almost looks courageous: Get vaccinated or you’re not allowed on any UC campus this fall. This is a policy, after all, that will almost certainly lead to some protest, and it automatically invites national scorn from conservative media moneymakers and dedicated anti-vaxxers.
As a health safety decision, it’s a no-brainer. As a business decision, meanwhile, keeping campuses open and residential halls occupied are simply vital to the bottom line. And the more serious question that follows is how long it’ll take before private businesses and other institutions arrive at the same conclusion.
The pandemic has made a grim comeback. The delta variant of COVID-19, which is up to 50% more transmissible than previous mutations, is rapidly expanding its reach across the U.S. and now is the country’s dominant strain. Seven-day case rates are up nearly 70% in the past week. Hospitals are beginning to fill with COVID patients again, some to levels beyond their worst months of 2020.
With more than 600,000 Americans already dead, it might seem natural for vaccine numbers to be trending upward. Instead, the entire idea of inoculation has been so politicized that it can appear unrelated to its purpose, which is to prevent the spread of a virus with lethal components. Nationally, only 48.6% of the total population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and by most accounts the vaccination effort is stalling.
UC regents, taking note of these developments, moved past largely useless rhetoric and confronted the real-world situation. By requiring all students and employees to be fully vaccinated before showing up on any of the system’s 10 campuses, some of which begin the fall term in August, they are protecting the collective health of more than half a million people.
The legal precedent is strong for mass employers and those running their own businesses to step up and do the same. In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that its federal laws “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19,” so long as they allow those with medical or religious restrictions to be exempt from the policy. One such employer, Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, beat a court challenge brought by 117 of its workers.
On a common sense level, the policy is designed to encourage food processing plants, restaurants, factories, hotel chains, health care facilities, stadiums, and arenas to become safer work environments. The work at these locales is often performed by lower-wage employees, many of whom desperately need to show up for those jobs but who are part of racial or ethnic groups at the greatest risk of COVID infection and death.
And we need to get past the idea that a vaccine requirement is a radical new concept. U.S. officials often required proof of a smallpox vaccine for anyone trying to enter the country in the late 1800s, and every state currently requires K-12 students to be immunized against some diseases, including measles and mumps.
“There is precedent for vaccine passports, in the sense that if you want to attend school, you need to get immunized. If you want to travel to certain countries, you need to get immunized,” Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, told Healthline. “It’s not like these discussions are completely out of the blue.”
The consequences of large-scale inaction can be dire. Los Angeles County health officials waited too long to follow their own instincts and once again require masks in most indoor public settings, and now the county is recording more than 10,000 new COVID cases a week, its worst rate since March.
There is nothing preventing the county’s private businesses from taking the next step and telling their employees to get a shot. In a survey conducted in March, only 3% of businesses said they would require vaccination, but that was before the delta variant really hit. Those numbers may yet be on the move.
San Francisco’s leaders last month made it clear where they stand. The city’s 35,000 employees will be required to get vaccinated, unless they have a medical or religious reason for not doing so. Los Angeles, whose COVID rates consistently have been higher than San Francisco’s, has not enacted such a mandate for its workers.
The science is largely settled when it comes to the efficacy of vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said at an international thoracic conference in May that the real-world results of the vaccines were “easily as good, if not better” than those of the clinical trials that advanced them to emergency use authorization. For that reason, among others, full approval by the Food and Drug Administration for all three vaccines in use—Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—is largely a formality.
That doesn’t mean the vaccines are perfect. They also are subject to vastly different evaluations, depending upon political preference. In the most recent vaccine monitor conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31% of those identifying as Republicans said they definitely won’t receive a shot, or will do so only if it’s required. Among Democrats, that figure drops to 5%.
Last week, the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, described what is happening across the country as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” While some might read her words as meaning that those who decline a vaccine will bear the brunt of COVID’s force, it’s not true. The reality is that “unvaccinated” takes in all of the communities for which outreach has been a failure—communities of color, California’s growing homeless population, lower-income neighborhoods—children under 12 for whom a vaccine isn’t approved, and, quite possibly, those who work in crowded settings and whose employers aren’t interested in a vaccine mandate.
It’s a losing strategy, and the stakes are high. The whole world is not a college lecture hall, but it’s worth noting that the Chronicle of Higher Education already has identified 586 campuses that will be enforcing vaccine mandates of at least some students or employees this fall. These are crowded places where disease can spread. Other businesses would do well to follow their lead.