Back in March, when Rutgers became the first university in the country to mandate the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, I thought it was an unnecessary overreach. After all, millions of people were voluntarily making the informed choice to get vaccinated every day — why provoke controversy by mandating it?
Over the next few months, that wave of vaccinations slowed to a trickle.
As of Monday, only 62 percent of New Jerseyans are fully vaccinated, and most states are far worse. Now it seems time to expand a vaccine mandate to the whole state.
Gov. Phil Murphy's (D-N.J.) executive order last month, which required public school teachers and state workers to choose between vaccination and weekly testing, exempted community colleges, local governments and the entire private sector.
But Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli recently promised to roll back even this relatively modest policy if elected. He would also use the bully pulpit to discourage private businesses from requiring vaccinations from their customers or employees.
Ciattarelli also hopes to expand exemptions for existing mandates on the basis of "parental choice" which would give anti-vaxxers a different avenue, outside of religious exemptions, to bar their children from getting vaccinated.
He himself is not anti-vaccine but simply "all about medical freedom and bodily autonomy," explains the man opposed to legalized marijuana and abortion. Snark aside, I want to agree with him. I wish the government would simply give people the facts and trust them to make their own informed decisions.
Yet this has been the strategy for almost a year now, and it has proven insufficient. There are two paths to herd immunity: One is to let the virus rip through every community, causing tens of thousands of preventable deaths but leaving the survivors with natural immunity. The other is mass vaccinations. And if persuasion and incentives do not get us to where we need to go, then we have to turn to mandates.
The pandemic has continuously forced us to balance public health, civil liberties, economic growth and social equity. Coercion is never pretty, but it has become the only realistic path to normalcy that avoids dumping thousands of bodies into mobile morgues in the name of freedom.
Nobody is an island. The refusal to get vaccinated threatens not just the unvaccinated filling up hospitals around the country but also vaccinated patients suffering other injuries or illnesses being turned away for lack of resources.
It is also clear that the economy's health depends on public health. After months of strong, steady growth, the wave of the delta variant has brought plummeting consumer confidence and muted job growth.
That is never good news but especially not at the same time that unemployment insurance and anti-eviction protections expire for millions.
Much of this needless crisis is partisan. Nationwide, a county's level of support for former President Donald J. Trump in 2020 explains approximately half of the variation between counties in vaccination rates.
That leaves half to other explanations. Most unvaccinated people distrust the vaccine and doubt the seriousness of COVID-19, although many have practical concerns such as missing work or paying for the shot (although New Jersey enacted paid sick leave in 2018, and the shot is free).
In the long term, we must restore people's trust in a competent and honest government. But that sort of cultural shift takes a lot of time that we do not have. New waves and variants will emerge sooner or later.
Mandates, by contrast, do not require engaging with every unvaccinated person’s unique concerns.
When the French government announced that people would need to present proof of either vaccination, prior infection or a recent negative COVID-19 test to get into social events, restaurants, schools, businesses and so on, more than a million people signed up for shots.
Despite protests from a vocal minority, France's vaccination rate is now far higher than the United States and is, in fact, among the highest worldwide.
Starting on Sept. 13, New York City began enforcing the "Key to NYC Pass" policy requiring proof of vaccination to do most indoor activities while paying people $100 to get vaccinated if they have not already.
Any mandate brings logistical challenges.
For one, it is incredibly easy to forge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine card since it is just a piece of paper.
Additionally, the enforcement of any mandate is going to fall mostly on low-wage service workers who already have enough to deal with.
And it needs to be a conditions-based policy so that when, say 85 percent or 90 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, it starts winding down.
Still, the existence of challenges does not change the underlying arguments.
To prevent needless deaths and truly free ourselves from the pandemic, some type of “Key to NJ” policy has become a necessary evil. Like in France, proof of prior infection should be equally valid to proof of vaccination, as natural immunity is basically as strong.
Just look at Rutgers, where more than 98 percent of students are vaccinated and things are, with some exceptions, back to normal. Maybe most of us would have gotten vaccinated without a mandate anyway but certainly not 98 percent.
Vaccines work. Mandates work.
Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy senior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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