While the omicron surge is hopefully the last phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may unfortunately not be the last pandemic we face. These and other lessons from efforts to control the pandemic will be valuable for any future episode.
As a faculty member in public higher education I have been involved in vaccine mandate committees at the university and systemwide level. These mandates, as approved at institutions of higher education throughout the state, have served to protect the health of students, faculty and staff, and to encourage vaccinations by those who might otherwise hesitate.
The unvaccinated are more likely to suffer severe consequences from COVID, including hospitalization and death, can become vectors to spread the disease to others, and constitute a pool for the mutation of new variants of the virus. Opposition to these mandates is based on fallacious legal reasoning and misuse of the notion of freedom.
The legal status of COVID vaccine mandates at universities has been affirmed on numerous occasions, starting with July 2021 decision by U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty in the case Ryan Klassen et al v. The Trustees of Indiana University, denying a request for an injunction against a vaccine mandate at Indiana University. The ruling, a document of just over 100 pages, was based on a legal precedent more than a century old: the 1905 case of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Then, in the context of a smallpox epidemic, Jacobson was fined $5 for refusing vaccination under a mandate from the city of Cambridge, and appealed his case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in 1905, in a decision authored by Justice John Marshall Harlan, ruled against Jacobson, arguing that the “police power” of the state — its ability to protect and enforce public order — can be legitimately used to constrain individual liberties in extreme situations such as the smallpox outbreak. The “Jacobson principle” has been cited favorably by a number of subsequent Supreme Court rulings and so constitutes a precedent.
The 2020 Indiana case was itself appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to hear the case, in a decision signed by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, leaving the vaccine mandate in full force. Closer to home, legal action has been rejected against vaccine mandates at public universities in both Massachussetts (Harris et al, vs the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Boston) and Connecticut (Wade et al v. University of Connecticut Board of Trustees). The Family Freedom Endeavor Inc., a group headquartered in Massachusetts which sponsored legal actions against vaccine mandates appears to have removed its website and Facebook page following its failure to achieve its goal.
A persistent argument against the vaccine mandate is that it’s the individual’s freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated and that it is their right to refuse the vaccine or to follow other anti- COVID measures such as wearing a face mask. The argument for the right to not be vaccinated, other than for legitimate medical exemptions, rejects the basic principle that rights are not absolute but have both scope and limits.
The limits are necessary restrictions to avoid excess. Freedom of speech precludes death threats and speech that is a direct call to illegal action. The right to bear arms is subject to restrictions since individuals other than duly sworn officers cannot carry guns in public buildings, nor may individuals own functional machine guns or automatic weapons, at least not in our state.
Freedom is the legitimate goal of struggles to remove unjust systems, such as the freedom riders against segregation, the civil war to free the slaves, or the Ukrainians battling the Russian invasion. But at the hands of self-serving individuals the term “freedom” has become decoupled from its legitimate scope and free floats as a detached slogan. The term “meme” was coined to describe how ideas, like genes, can spread within a population, replicating themselves with variations, almost like the COVID virus and its mutations.
In the case of the misuse of freedom by extremists, the meme, shorn of its limits, has become a kind of scream, shouted by talk radio hosts intent on maintaining their core audience, and by politicians interested in appealing to a misinformed base for purposes of electoral advantage. The problem is not limited to the U.S., with the recent example of the “freedom convoy” of truckers in Canada, who demanded “freedom” from the very vaccination that would protect their health and that of their compatriots as well.
Freedom from COVID requires measures that are difficult but necessary in order to prevent a greater harm and protect the public good. The vaccine mandate has saved many lives and is essential to winding down the pandemic by immunizing the susceptible population. Even now continued vaccination and moreover booster shots are essential.
As we exit the omicron surge and hope to see the virus reduced to background noise or “endemic” status, we need to view the vaccine mandate as an essential step to that end and a needed tool in preparation against future pandemics that may yet affect us.
David Blitz is a professor of philosophy at Central Connecticut State University and a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.