COVID-19 vaccines are now available to the general public, and there are some indications that the supply of vaccines will soon meet demand. At that point, the primary obstacle standing between us and near-normalcy will be vaccine hesitancy.
Given the unique circumstances of the pandemic, experiencing some uncertainty toward the vaccine is understandable despite the fact that all three are safe and effective. However, due to the immense harm COVID-19 is still causing in our state, it remains a high priority to reach out to the hesitant and cajole them into rolling up their sleeves. NC State could help normalize the vaccine and protect students attending in the fall by requiring it alongside all the other shots students are required to obtain before coming to campus.
Although Duke, which is a private university, has already announced a vaccine requirement, the UNC System is taking a more cautious approach given the vaccines are currently under emergency authorization and not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s not clear whether public universities such as NC State are legally allowed to require them, but with nothing explicitly stopping them, NC State could, at minimum, create an opt-out system where students with religious or other exemptions could apply for a waiver.
More preferably, the North Carolina General Assembly should pass a law specifically allowing schools to add the vaccine to their required immunizations list. Then UNC System schools would have little excuse for keeping it off. Having students actively accept the vaccine would clearly be ideal, but putting vaccines in the default position would provide a nudge that could help the vaccine-hesitant get over it a little easier.
Before I got my shot, I was asked to acknowledge the vaccine was not fully FDA approved, and indeed, since then we’ve seen why emergency authorization is not quite as robust as the approval process, when a few people experienced blood clots after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. So while clearly the vaccine is safer than the disease itself and is probably safer than dozens of other risky activities we perform on the daily, hesitancy is, at minimum, comprehensible, particularly for people who don’t pay close attention to the news and may hear “blood clots” with the same severity as they hear “infections of COVID-19.”
Expressing compassion and respect for these folks while reaching out and informing them about the remarkable efficacy of the vaccines should therefore be the highest priority for the government and NC State. However, this doesn’t change the fact that conflating the COVID-19 shot with other, near-ubiquitous vaccines may help ease people’s reluctance to get the shot. In the worst-case scenario for the University (i.e. getting sued), they could easily drop the requirement.
Given the obviously low rates of side effects despite millions of people having received these shots, it seems like a given that Pfizer and Moderna, at a minimum, will get full FDA approval sometime in the future. If NC State doesn’t require it before next year, they may well be forced to wait until fall 2022 to effectively implement it, thus dragging out their response a full extra year.
While universal mask-wearing and social distancing would certainly prevent COVID-19 from being a problem, the recent uptick in case numbers demonstrates the rising levels of exhaustion people have with following state guidelines. With the University set to return to full operations in the fall, they should take a hard look at what happened last fall and then decide whether they want to pump the brakes right when we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.