Our Opinion: Flu vaccine order a good idea, needs some tweaks

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The state's first-in-the-nation mandate for flu vaccinations for all students is admirably ambitious ("State mandates flu vaccinations for students," Eagle, Aug. 20). It does bring with it questions that must be answered and a loophole that must be closed.

The regulation issued last week by the state Department of Public Health requires those in day care centers, preschool, K-12 and colleges to be vaccinated by the end of the year. The administration rightly fears the potential for a flu outbreak concurrent with a coronavirus surge. This would not only up the risk for vulnerable populations and increase the burden on health care providers, but also strain COVID-19 testing and tracking efforts since many with influenza will have similar symptoms.

The theory behind the mandate is sound, but the administration has some work ahead of it. With so many school districts beginning with remote learning, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents asks how this edict can be enforced. Responsible parents and college students will get the vaccine, but as we have seen with COVID-19, not everyone can be counted upon to act responsibly.

Gov. Charlie Baker is confident that there will be enough vaccine available, but if this program works as intended more young people will be getting vaccinated than ever before. To ensure that there is sufficient vaccine for the entire population, the governor should consider abandoning the requirement that those as young as six months in child care centers be vaccinated. Beginning the vaccinations at age 1 or 2 might help assure there is sufficient vaccine available.

The plan's religious exemption from the vaccine opens a loophole for anti-vaxxers to drive through. Vaccines don't provide the needed herd immunity if large segments of the community don't get vaccinated, and the exemption jeopardizes achievement of that immunity. There are religions with long-held and widely known aversions to vaccines, such as the Christian Science Church and Dutch Reformed Church, which should be respected. Most major religions, however, support or have no objections to vaccinations, and should therefore not be used as thinly veiled personal excuses to flout best practices for public health. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, for instance, has stated that there are no grounds for opposing vaccinations "in light of the concern we should all have for the health of our children, public health and the common good." Those who believe that vaccinations are a sinister government conspiracy or cause illnesses in spite of all the evidence to the contrary should not receive a get-out-of-vaccinations card courtesy of a blanket religious exemption.

The flu immunization program will provide a test run for a COVID-19 vaccine whenever it arrives. That vaccine will also not work as efficiently as necessary if too many people opt out. The common good is a foreign concept for too many, and loophole-free mandates for vaccinations for those attending schools is one way to ensure that the common good is fulfilled and herd immunity reached to the greatest extent possible.

The administration's flu vaccine mandate for the schools needs adjustment, but is definitely on the right track. Making it work will clearly benefit the state and set a precedent that other states could follow to their benefit.

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