As of August 29, 204 million Americans received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Great news. Not so great are the individual vaccine statistics for Kansas, where just 57% of the state received at least one dose of the vaccine. Better is the university’s effort to increase the vaccination rate among the student body with incentives like free tuition.
That being said, if we really want to get back to the Lawrence to which we’re all accustomed, it is time to institute a school-wide vaccine mandate.
I could use this entire column to explain why the vaccine is both safe and effective, but the FDA’s official approval of the Pfizer-BioTech vaccine should be enough affirmation. And I could explain why there is precedent for universities to require their student body to get vaccinated, but the University of Virginia’s decision to disenroll 238 students for not complying with their vaccine mandate should be enough of an explanation.
Instead, I think it’s more important to underscore the lesser-discussed moral requisite of a campus-wide mandate.
Currently, the vaccine is available for everyone who is at least 12 years old without certain pre-existing conditions. Anyone within these parameters should feel morally obligated to receive the vaccine because not doing so endangers those physically incapable of getting vaccinated.
Atlantic writer Derek Thompson compared this concept to car collisions.
“But imagine...if you could have a forward collision warning system installed in your car for free,” Thompson wrote. “An already-pretty-safe activity would become an even safer activity; and what’s more, you’d be protecting other people on the road at minimal cost to yourself.”
Time and again, we are seeing the unvaccinated population at the forefront of COVID-19 transmission and death; 99.5% of COVID-19 deaths and 97% of hospitalizations came from unvaccinated people, according to a PBS News article. If the university wants to attenuate Covid-adjacent illness among the population, the right thing to do is mandate the vaccine.
“[T]he unvaccinated continue to be the big highway of transmission,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “The vaccinated, they're little side streets. Let's not get preoccupied with that. We need to get more people vaccinated."
Those in opposition to vaccine mandates often argue that getting vaccinated should remain a choice for Americans because this is a free society. While that is an entirely reasonable thought process, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle is important to consider while making this argument.
According to the Ethics Centre, the harm principle argues “people should be free to act however they wish unless their actions cause harm to somebody else.” Presently, individuals’ conscious abstention from receiving the vaccine is prolonging the country’s ability to reach herd immunity and greatly increases the likelihood for the virus to spread.
Should the university adhere to the harm principle, they can take significant steps toward mitigating COVID-19 spread on campus and in Lawrence.
Teaching people about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines has not yet led to herd immunity. Incentivizing getting the vaccine has not yet led to herd immunity. With an FDA-approved vaccine in circulation, the time is now to mandate vaccines at KU; it is the moral thing to do.