The only sure way to end the COVID-19 pandemic is through herd immunity. This can be achieved either through mass infection or mass vaccination.
Most epidemiologists believe that breaking the chains of coronavirus transmission requires between 50 and 70 percent of the population to become immune to it. Allowing the pandemic to run its course through an unprotected populace would result in misery for millions and deaths for hundreds of thousands. Fortunately, there are more than 100 projects around the world aimed at producing a vaccine against the scourge.
The Trump administration has launched “Operation Warp Speed,” with the goal of producing 300 million doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of this year. A number of vaccine makers in the U.S. are already testing their candidate vaccines in clinical trials. These developments should be good news to all of us who have endured the lockdowns of the past two months. But even in the midst of a pandemic, anti-vaccination fervor apparently never abates.
A new Reuters/IPSOS poll of nearly 4,500 people reports that “a quarter of Americans are hesitant about a coronavirus vaccine.” In fact, the poll finds that “less than two-thirds of respondents said they were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ interested in a vaccine” against the virus. Another 11 percent were unsure. These poll numbers hover just at or below the estimated threshold for COVID-19 herd immunity. This would likely allow the virus to still circulate, endangering neighbors immunocompromised by cancer, HIV treatments, transplanted organs, or another condition.
To close the immunization gap in coronavirus herd immunity, Merrill Matthews, a resident scholar at the pro-market Institute for Policy Innovation asks, “If the government determines that vaccinations are essential to stemming the spread of the disease, would it—could it—mandate vaccination compliance?” His answer is that legally it could and it might.
Although Matthews does not specifically cite it, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1905 case of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts that the state government could mandate smallpox vaccinations to protect the public’s health. In a 2019 overview of the legal authority to require vaccinations, the Congressional Research Service noted that “the states’ general police power to promote public health and safety encompasses the authority to require mandatory vaccinations.”
So the government can mandate inoculations if and when an effective coronavirus vaccine becomes available. But should it? My hunch is that such a step won’t be deemed necessary. The more people die of this pandemic, the more likely those left uninfected will be to seek vaccinations once they become available, assuming they are both effective and safe. If a second and more deadly wave of infections hits in the fall, as some fear it might, the ranks of the vaccine refuseniks will probably shrink even further.
This will be especially true if COVID-19 vaccinations are made available without cost. While the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes is not true, there will surely be fewer anti-vaxxers in a pandemic.