In 1777, there weren’t chants of “My body, my choice” at political rallies or governors selling “Don’t Fauci my Florida” campaign T-shirts.
But George Washington’s decision to mandate that Continental Army soldiers be inoculated against smallpox wasn’t easy. There were no safe, widely tested vaccines like the ones used for the coronavirus today, and inoculation in the 18th century was controversial and risky. It required exposing healthy people to the smallpox virus by scratching it into their arm or having them inhale it through the nose, generally causing a mild infection that led to immunity but, also — occasionally — death.
Washington wrote that if his army got widely infected, “We should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”
That was the first mass military inoculation, according to the Library of Congress. Since then, vaccine mandates inside and outside the military — and opposition to them — have been woven into the fabric of American life. In fact, we’re living with vaccine mandates right now — and not just for COVID-19.
But in the GOP playbook, vaccine mandates are a new concoction by the freedom-hating far-left and government bureaucrats. Could long-standing vaccine mandates be the next target in Republican-led states like Florida? We once thought that would be a far-fetched possibility. Not so much today.
Want to attend state-funded Florida International University? You must show proof of two MMR shots, for measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination for hepatitis B and meningitis are also “strongly recommended,” but not mandatory, and require the signing of a waiver.
Want to work at taxpayer-funded Jackson Health System? Whether you’re a doctor or a cafeteria worker, you’ll need a flu shot and proof of MMR and chicken pox vaccination. The hospital system also requires workers to get COVID shots or face restrictions, such as wearing an N95 mask at all times. Religious and medical exemptions apply for the COVID and flu shots, spokeswoman Lidia Amoretti-Morgado told the Herald Editorial Board.
Want to send your children to a public school in Florida? Unless you have a religious or medical exemption signed by a doctor, get ready to prove they received shots for polio, hepatitis B, chicken pox, MMR and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis).
Florida’s school mandate is stricter than those of other states such as Colorado, where parents can object to vaccination on “philosophical” grounds or because of personal beliefs. But don’t tell Florida’s lawmakers. They don’t need any help coming up with bad ideas.
Vaccine mandates have been part of everyday life for Americans for more than a century for the simple reason that they work in controlling or eradicating diseases. Thanks to widespread vaccination, the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States happened in 1949.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is leading the charge against local governments that require COVID vaccination from employees, announcing in a recent news conference that he will start fining local officials. Mandates seem to be a greater issue than the misinformation that was propagated at his own event, when a Gainesville employee took the stage to claim falsely that the COVID vaccine “changes your RNA.” DeSantis, apparently suffering from a case of amnesia, said he doesn’t “even remember” what the man who was standing next to him said.
Many say the COVID vaccine is just too new to be mandated. But the approval standards set by the Food and Drug Administration — which gave the Pfizer shot full authorization last month after reviewing data from more than 40,000 people who participated in a clinical trial — are more stringent than what was in place in 1809, when the first state vaccine law was enacted in Massachusetts for smallpox.
In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts upholding a Cambridge City mandate. The court rejected the idea of an exemption based on personal choice because it would strip the legislative power from its function to “care for the public health and the public safety.” In 1922, the court denied a challenge to childhood vaccination requirements. More recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to a Maricopa County policy that excluded unvaccinated children from school when there is an unconfirmed but reasonable risk for the spread of measles.
“The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” the court wrote in the 1905 case.
In other words, the Supreme Court said freedom doesn’t give you the right to harm others.
But these days, the liberty that Washington’s inoculated troops fought for has been turned into a cloak for anti-vax entitlement and selfishness. Those attitudes have always been part of American society, but partisan politics has never played such an important role with conservative principles becoming intertwined with vaccine hesitancy.
Mandates in peril
And that raises a scary possibility: If so many Americans believe the COVID vaccine to be harmful or ineffective, who’s to say vaccine mandates for diseases that we thought long eradicated won’t come into question next?
A flawed — and later debunked — study and online conspiracies fueled by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy led many parents in the late 1990s and 2000s to believe MMR vaccines caused autism. There were 22 measles outbreaks across the nation in 2019, the second highest number of reported outbreaks since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We’re already seeing that the fervor against the coronavirus vaccine has jeopardized public access to information about immunizations in general. Tennessee health officials, under pressure from lawmakers, stopped all adolescent vaccine outreach for COVID as well as other diseases in July. Health department employees were told to remove the agency logo from vaccine information given to the public, and the state fired its top vaccine official. After The Tennessean broke the story, drawing national condemnation, the state resumed most outreach efforts.
In past times, we would brush off what happened in Tennessee as an isolated case of lunacy. But today we cannot so easily dismiss the idea that lunacy might prevail against established — and effective — public-health measures.