As U.S. officials began distributing the first doses of authorized Covid-19 vaccines, some health experts worried that
1. Can U.S. government authorities require people to get vaccinated for Covid-19?
2. What are the precedents?
At the turn of the 20th century, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts mandated that residents get a smallpox vaccination. Pastor Henning Jacobson rejected both the shot and the obligation to pay a $5 fine, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost in a landmark 1905 ruling. More recently, New York City ordered people in a part of the Brooklyn borough to be vaccinated against measles or pay a $1,000 fine after an
3. Are there likely to be Covid-19 vaccine mandates for schoolchildren?
Not anytime soon. The first Covid-19 vaccine authorized for distribution in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration, made by
4. Can employers require vaccinations?
In general, yes. Most nonunion companies have relatively wide latitude to create such requirements largely because employment relationships are presumed to be “at-will” in nearly every state. Companies can fire at-will workers for any legal reason, which could include refusal to comply with a vaccine mandate. In addition, employers have a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Already, many health-care facilities require workers to get inoculated against certain diseases, sometimes in response to state provisions. The scope of the coronavirus pandemic may motivate companies in other industries to adopt mandates, particularly if their employees work in close quarters or in frequent contact with the public.
5. Can workers raise objections?
The Americans with Disabilities Act allows a worker to request an exemption from a vaccine mandate if she has a disability that’s covered by the law. In such a case, the employer must communicate with the worker to determine whether an exemption is a reasonable accommodation given her disability and job responsibilities -- and isn’t an undue burden for the employer. Failing to engage in that process or provide a reasonable accommodation could be grounds for a lawsuit. A worker with a health condition that compromises her immune system has a good chance of prevailing on a claim if she has a doctor’s advice that she should avoid a vaccine. An employer would need to show that allowing a worker to remain unvaccinated would cause an undue burden or pose a direct threat in the workplace, which would be difficult to do if there are alternatives available such as working from home or moving to an area segregated from coworkers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws against job discrimination, has said that ADA protections apply to Covid-19 vaccines.
6. What about religious objections?
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion, giving workers the right to seek an exception to a vaccination mandate based on religious beliefs. The
7. Are vaccine mandates effective?
There are lively debates among public health authorities and academics about the efficacy of vaccine mandates. Supporters cite studies showing that stricter rules on inoculating schoolchildren lead to lower rates of vaccine-preventable diseases. Most of the data, however, relates to children, whereas a Covid-19 vaccination campaign needs to reach a significant portion of adults. Some health specialists argue that mandates -- especially if they’re imposed by governments -- will only boost resistance to taking vaccines and provide ammunition for anti-vaccine activists at the political fringe.
The Reference Shelf
- Related QuickTakes on
vaccine hesitancy, the challengesof deploying vaccines, and the anti-vaccine movement.
- A Bloomberg News article covers
the discussionabout vaccine mandates within companies so far.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website on state vaccination laws.
- An article in the Journal of the
American Medical Associationdiscusses the criteria for deciding when vaccine mandates for schoolchildren are appropriate.
- A Kaiser Health News report on Covid-19 vaccine studies in children.
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Lisa Beyer, Jay-Anne Casuga
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