3 Myths About COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates That Need To Go Away

Don't fall for misinformation. Here's what you need to know if you're unvaccinated or if you're worried about the delta variant.

With the delta coronavirus variant spreading rapidly among unvaccinated people, many businesses, venues and even cities are enacting vaccine mandates to help protect people in public spaces.

The vaccine mandates have been positively received in communities with high vaccination rates, but many people who have chosen to not get vaccinated aren’t all that thrilled about the rules. Some believe vaccine mandates infringe on people’s personal liberties. Others claim they’re illegal and an unprecedented public health move.

In reality, the whole purpose of vaccine mandates is to protect the public’s health ― and they’re certainly not new measures.

“Vaccine mandates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are part of optimizing the health and well-being of individuals and employees,” said Faith Fletcher, an assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

We have hard proof that the shots do a good job of this. The vaccines dramatically reduce the chance of getting infected in the first place, meaning there will be fewer infected people walking around shedding the virus to others. The shots reduce people’s odds of needing to be hospitalized and thus pushing our health care system to the brink. They also significantly reduce transmission, and even when vaccinated people get sick, the duration of how long they’re contagious is shortened.

Mandates are mainly reserved for when there is a serious threat to public health. Vaccines work best when enough people in the population receive them. A mandate can push more people to get vaccinated and drive up vaccination rates in an effort to control future outbreaks.

Yet, because the vaccines and other public health measures for COVID-19 have been highly politicized, there has been a ton of misinformation ― especially when it comes to mandates. Here are a few of the most common myths and the facts about them:

Myth 1: Vaccine Mandates Are Unprecedented

Vaccine mandates date back to the smallpox outbreak of the late 1800s. These rules aren’t unprecedented, but the pandemic is, Fletcher said. Never have we seen an infectious disease like COVID-19 spread so quickly around the globe.

Mandates are commonly used to slow the spread of other infectious diseases. Many health care systems routinely require workers to be vaccinated against the flu, hepatitis B and measles plus rubella. Schools require kids to get certain inoculations before classes begin. The military also requires vaccines ― just look at the anthrax vaccine mandated in the late 1990s, said Sharona Hoffman, a professor of health law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

States have the authority to promote public health, and though it hasn’t been necessary for them to enact widespread vaccine mandates in our time, they did so when smallpox was rampant in the 19th century, Hoffman added.

Vaccine mandates are not new or illegal, according to experts.
SDI Productions via Getty Images
Vaccine mandates are not new or illegal, according to experts.

Myth 2: Vaccine Mandates Are Illegal

The idea that vaccine mandates are illegal can be traced back to our Constitution ― the whole purpose of which is to protect our personal liberties. People generally don’t want the government to tell them what to do, but that is inherently a part of living in a civilized society.

There are all types of rules and regulations set forth by the government that are designed to protect the public.

“You can’t kill no matter how angry you are, you can’t steal no matter how much you want something, you have to abide by the traffic laws or else you get a ticket, you can’t run around naked, you can’t go into businesses without a shirt or shoes,” Hoffman said. We follow all of these mandates because we live in a civilized society.

States have very broad public health authorities, and they have the power to mandate vaccines. In 1905, in the wake of the smallpox epidemic, “the Supreme Court decided that local authorities, in fact, have a right to establish vaccine mandates,” Hoffman explained. Back then, the plaintiff made all kinds of constitutional arguments, but the high court rejected them.

Look at it this way: Local governments already regulate health practices in many establishments we visit on a regular basis, including gyms, salons, bars and restaurants, said Robert Heimer, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.

Health officials inspect restaurants to ensure their kitchens are clean and not spreading foodborne illnesses. The vaccine mandates are similar with COVID-19, except instead preventing a foodborne illness, it’s an airborne one.

“In some ways, this is not a huge conceptual leap,” Heimer said. “The laws can force lots of people to obey certain rules that are imposed for the benefit of others as well.”

Hoffman said there have been constitutional arguments against vaccine mandates, but they’ve all been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Employers, too, are protected and have clear justification for dismissing workers who refuse to get vaccinated (and therefore violate the mandate).

“We do have some precedents that employer vaccination mandate programs will be upheld,” Fletcher said. So, you can probably expect to see more vaccine mandates roll out in the coming weeks.

Myth 3: You’ll Be Required To Be Vaccinated In Order To Do Anything Ever Again

As more situations require proof of vaccination, some might feel as if they are left with two options: Get vaccinated or be banned from all activities. But many situations currently offer alternatives: If you don’t show proof of vaccination, you can wear a mask or undergo routine testing.

According to Heimer, the gray area with this is if a person chooses to not get vaccinated, whose burden is it to fund the testing? And for how long? That’s still being worked out in many places. These types of options also vary from location to location — each employer, venue and state will have a different plan for people who remain unvaccinated.

There are exemptions. People with medical issues that prevent them from being able to get the shot and individuals with certain religious beliefs may be exempt from vaccine mandates. But many agree that the religious exemptions get kind of murky, and without strict mandates it’s inevitable that outbreaks will continue.

The vaccines are safe and extremely effective in preventing severe illness from COVID-19. It’s highly encouraged that you do get the shots ― not only to protect other people when you’re in public spaces but also to protect yourself. The goal of the vaccines, the mandates and other public health measures is the same: To make the world safer for everyone.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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