As federal regulators consider approval of a coronavirus vaccine for young children, several state officials — including Connecticut’s new public health commissioner — school leaders and education reform advocates say they would support an immunization mandate for K-12 school children once the shot receives full authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Manisha Juthani, who leads the Department of Public Health, said in an interview with the CT Mirror that she favors a mandate for school children once the vaccine wins full approval. The FDA has signed off on emergency use of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 shot in children ages 12 to 15. Pfizer recently asked the agency to also authorize emergency use of the vaccine for kids 5 to 11.
The FDA has only granted full approval to the Pfizer immunization for people 16 and older.
“I can say that I would support this type of initiative down the line,” Juthani said. “We need to see approvals for some of these vaccines, and I need to see where things land. I have not seen the data. But ultimately, we have vaccine mandates for many other vaccines. People generate their list of vaccines for their children when they enroll in school and for many other places that they go – college and workplaces and beyond. This vaccine technology has been tested for many, many decades, and it is the way that our lives are going to be able to get back to some sort of normalcy.”
Juthani said state leaders have not yet talked about such a requirement and are not considering it right now.
“I would need to discuss it with other appropriate members of this administration, but I would say that, scientifically, I would support that,” she said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this month he was imposing a coronavirus vaccine mandate for children in public and private schools – the first state in the nation to adopt such a requirement.
California’s mandate will be phased in as the FDA grants full approval to the shot for children. Students who opt out of the requirement – and who don’t have a medical or personal belief exemption – would have to be homeschooled.
The exemption rules have not yet been drafted. The Newsom administration is expected to seek public input.
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont said the state is eager to help facilitate COVID-19 vaccinations for children but only on a voluntary basis, given that they would be available under an emergency authorization.
Asked this week if he would consider a mandate, he replied: “No, surely not at this point. I mean, it’s only emergency use. So I think that’s a long way off.”
But Juthani is not alone in her support of a requirement for school children upon full FDA approval.
Dr. Scott Schoem, president of American Academy of Pediatrics’ Connecticut chapter, said his organization is an advocate of a mandate for K-12 children once the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices grant the vaccine full authorization.
“There are all kinds of mandates that are in the public interest for global population health. And to me, this is one of them,” said Schoem, who is head of pediatric otolaryngology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “From the standpoint of reducing exposure and making it safe for all kids to attend school, a mandate goes very far to be able to decrease the chance that somebody gets COVID and especially the delta variant, which is very contagious.”
Amy Dowell, state director for Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, said a mandate would help protect kids with weakened immune systems, some of whom cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Her group supports a requirement for school children.
“We think that children being vaccinated makes it possible for civil rights protections for students who are immune compromised,” Dowell said. “In our minds, more children being vaccinated [equates to] a safer classroom, allowing more students to safely be in those classrooms.”
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said conversations about a mandate for school-aged children have not yet come up in her organization, but she personally favors a requirement once the vaccine is FDA approved.
“What we have learned over this last year and a half is certainly that it is incredibly important for our children to be in school, and we feel very strongly that with a vaccination, we can achieve herd immunity, and we won’t be closing or quarantining,” she said. “I think that will be great for all kids.”
When considering a mandate, the state may want to include a weekly testing option for “a period of time” to give some families time to adjust, she added.
Not everyone is supportive of a vaccine edict.
Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, said many parents she knows, especially in Black families, are still hesitant to get vaccinated themselves and are unsure whether they want to immunize their children.
Some parents don’t believe they have enough information about the effects of the vaccine on young children’s development, while others are hesitant because of the role they say politics has played in the development and rollout of the vaccines.
Many families have heard more about the vaccines from the governor than from local politicians or trusted community leaders, Samuel said.
“The politics [are] making people afraid because they’re only hearing from one person, more so the governor, than from the people they put into office that were supposed to represent their interests,” she said.
A mandate could also spur lawsuits.
“I will say that if they go that route for school purposes, they’re going to end up in court with that, because there’s too many variables,” Samuel said.
Some legislators say they have not ruled out introducing a bill next session that would impose a mandate, though they acknowledged it would be difficult to win passage. The next regular session begins in February.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who is co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said he would consider such a bill if agencies like the CDC recommended that requirement for school children.
“I wouldn’t rule out such a possibility, because if the data are sufficient and indicate that this would be a good thing to do given the high transmissibility of COVID, it’s quite possible [federal agencies] would recommend to us that it be added to the list” of mandatory shots, he said.
House Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said legislative leaders have not discussed the issue. He pointed to the challenges lawmakers had in passing a bill last year to remove the state’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations and said imposing a requirement for the coronavirus shot would be even more daunting.
“We had a very difficult time; it took three years to deal with that first immunization bill. I think you would find it a very difficult environment to try” a mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine, he said. “And I’m also not sure we’re there yet from a science perspective.”
Earlier this month, Pfizer said it is seeking emergency use authorization of its vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. The FDA is expected to hold a meeting before the end of October. A decision could quickly follow.
A Sept. 30 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about a third of parents, or 34%, said they would vaccinate their 5-to-11-year-old child “right away” when the shot is authorized for that age group. About a third of parents (32%) said they would “wait and see” how the vaccine is working before having their 5-to-11-year-old vaccinated. The share of parents who said they definitely won’t get their 5-to-11-year-old inoculated remained steady at one in four, or 24%.
Nearly half of parents (48%) reported that their 12-to-17-year-old had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the study.
CT Mirror reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.