Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 3, 2021

Opposing Viewpoints: Mandating the COVID-19 vaccine at Hopkins will protect the freedom of high-risk individuals

By JESSICA KASAMOTO and SALMA ABDEL-AZIM | December 15, 2020

vaccine

PUBLIC DOMAIN

As vaccines for COVID-19 begin to roll out, Kasamoto and Abdel-Azim argue for Hopkins to mandate the shot for affiliates while Tie favors voluntary vaccination. 

This article is part of our series Opposing Viewpoints, where students with diverse perspectives answer pertinent questions in conversation with each other. You can find the opposing piece for this article here.

This year has been life-changing for every one of us. From lost loved ones to financial hardships to missed opportunities, we can all agree that this was not what we imagined when Hopkins sent us home last March. However, with the authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and Moderna and many others on the horizon, normal life seems to be within reach — if and only if we as a society decide to take this vaccine. For this and for many other reasons, Hopkins should mandate the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available for us to take it.

Yes, it works, and yes, it is safe

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 11. This vaccine has about a 95% efficacy against contraction of COVID-19, which is remarkably high. For reference, the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, a two-dose vaccine taken by 91.5% of children in the U.S., is 88% effective against mumps and 97% effective against measles. Rest assured, this vaccine works.

One of the main concerns about the new vaccine is that it is not safe. According to the FDA press release, the emergency use authorization issued by the FDA was given after it was ensured that “this vaccine met FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality..." Before emergency approval, the FDA evaluated safety data from an ongoing study of this vaccine, which included 37,586 participants, 18,801 of whom received the vaccine. These participants were followed for a median of two months after receiving the second dose.

The most commonly reported side effects during the study were pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever. These symptoms typically lasted for several days —not permanent, like death from COVID-19. These side effects are not unlike those from other vaccines. The most common side effects from the MMR vaccine are fever, mild rash, sore arm from the shot and temporary pain and stiffness in the joints.

While this mRNA vaccine concept may seem new, it has actually been studied for decades by scientists, including for the flu, rabies and Zika. In previous cancer research, mRNA has even been used to target cancer cells. The general concept of an mRNA vaccine was not invented over spring break.

No, autonomy does not apply here

"I should be able to choose what I do and put in my body. This is America, isn't it?" This autonomy argument would be more valid if this was a vaccine against a non-communicable disease, like cancer. If there was a preventative treatment for cancer, it should be your choice to take this treatment because that choice does not affect anyone but yourself. However, for a disease that is incredibly communicable and one that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in this country, not so much.

If there is a viable, effective option, it should be mandated that we all take it to be able to attend Hopkins. Making this vaccine mandatory would actually ensure the freedom of every student: The freedom to obtain an education without fear of death or severe illness. The freedom to have dinner at a restaurant with friends, buy overpriced food from CharMar, study at Brody and attend events like the Lighting of the Quads. Mandatory vaccination ensures both the safety of others and the liberty of returning to a normal life. People, especially the elderly and immunocompromised, should have this right. The lack of a mandatory vaccination policy would inhibit their right to live safely and freely.

This is not the only situation in our lives where autonomy does not apply. We follow traffic laws even though we buy cars with our own money and pay for roads with our taxes. Public health professionals and our government have decided that a lot fewer people die when they follow traffic laws. We are not allowed to hurt the people around us under the premise of personal freedom. A vaccine ensures that those around us are not harmed or killed by COVID-19.

This is far from the first time mandatory vaccination has been an issue in the United States. There is judicial precedent for mandatory vaccination. In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that residents of Cambridge, Mass. could be fined for refusing to take the smallpox vaccine. The argument that Henning Jacobson used was that “compulsion to introduce disease into a healthy system is a violation of liberty,” referring to the smallpox vaccine, which is made of live vaccinia, a virus similar but less harmful than the smallpox virus. Justice John Harlan rejected this argument, saying, "A community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members."

Our responsibility 

Hopkins, as one of the world leaders in this pandemic, should be setting an example for the rest of the world. If experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA believe that the vaccine is safe and necessary for stopping the pandemic, then Hopkins should be following suit. The country’s number one institute for public health should completely demonstrate trust towards these public health experts, and the best way to do this would be mandatory vaccination. 

Furthermore, Hopkins is a part of the Baltimore community — our actions, good or bad, will undoubtedly have a direct impact on the health and safety of the people around us. Currently, experts believe that the vaccine could prevent severe outcomes from COVID-19, and although it has not been proven yet, many more are “optimistic that vaccines would suppress the virus enough even in the nose and throat to prevent immunized people from spreading it to others.” Therefore, complete vaccination of all Hopkins affiliates could potentially help to prevent further loss of life and outbreaks and help to get the local economy back on its feet. Hopkins has the ability to make this happen, so they should; to do anything else would be harmful for society and arguably unethical.

This point is even more crucial when it comes to the undergraduate population since we are the age group that is largely responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Studies have shown that the death rate in college towns rose faster than the rest of the nation when many schools welcomed back college students this fall. Yet the college students weren’t the ones dying — it was the older people in the communities around them. The undergrad population could very well contribute to death in the community around us if we resume in-person classes and activities without vaccination.

This vaccine holds the key to the preservation of our right to live freely without fear of illness and death. This vaccine holds the key to a return to our normal lives and an end to a nightmare that has cost the world over 1.6 million deaths. It’s the right thing to do.

Jessica Kasamoto is a senior from Diamond Bar, Calif. studying Biomedical Engineering. She is a staff writer and columnist for the SciTech section of The News-Letter.

Salma Abdel-Azim is a sophomore from Appleton, Wis. double majoring in Public Health Studies and Molecular and Cellular Biology. 

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