This summer the California and New York state university systems decided to require COVID-19 vaccinations of students, faculty, and staff. These two state university systems, the country’s largest, together enroll more than a million students. More than eleven hundred private colleges and universities followed suit and imposed mandatory vaccinations on tens of thousands more Americans. Some limit their mandates to school members on-campus. Others require vaccination even of students whose only contact with the university community is through a computer screen. Some provide generous medical and religious exemptions. Others do not.
In September, the Biden Administration announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private-sector businesses with 100 or more workers and for federal contractors. The federal mandate applies to further hundreds of private and state colleges and universities. We estimate that more than half of all American institutions of higher education, and a clear majority of Americans enrolled in these institutions, are now subject to vaccine mandates.
Governors and attorneys general in many states have issued gubernatorial executive orders and filed lawsuits to push back against the federal mandate. Most colleges affected by the Biden administration’s directive nonetheless have chosen to acquiesce to its requirements. So too have professional organizations representing institutions of higher education such as the American Council on Education (ACE) and the American College Health Association (ACHA).
Many colleges already have begun to oust students who choose not to comply with institutional or federal vaccine mandates.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) does not oppose voluntary vaccination. We strongly encourage individuals in high-risk categories to get vaccinated. Yet we draw a sharp distinction between voluntary vaccination and mandated vaccination. NAS opposes both institutional and governmental COVID-19 vaccine mandates. They are a disproportionate response to the COVID-19 pandemic and they abrogate Americans’ liberties.
Our judgment of what is a disproportionate response draws on the judgments of epidemiological professionals, although we do not grant automatic authority either to any individual professional or to any putative professional consensus. Every elected official of a free republic can and should take responsibility to make his own decision about all matters of policy, including those supposedly the domain of ‘experts’—and so too should every American citizen and private organization. We speak of matters that concern epidemiology with some humility, but confident that we, as all American citizens, are capable of discerning the truth.
We know that many Americans have died after contracting COVID-19, and many more worldwide have succumbed to the disease. Estimates of death totals have proven unreliable because of disparities in definitions and classifications. An oft-cited figure is that more than five million people worldwide have died of COVID-19, but the mortality rate is far from certain. Some authorities estimate the figure is as high as 17 million, while others assert that 5 million dramatically overstates the mortality. At the heart of this ambiguity is the degree to which COVID-19 infections are a primary cause of recorded deaths, a contributing factor, or incidental to mortality from other causes.
A Disproportionate Response
Such uncertainty bears heavily on public policy decisions. In the U.S. public health officials and many government authorities have emphasized the direness of the threat and pushed for unprecedented interventions including the suspension of liberties that Americans have long held as inviolable. Whether and in what contexts such measures are justified remains an important debate. In this statement the National Association of Scholars enters only one corner of that debate. Our primary concern is higher education. In this area, we believe the imposition of COVID-19 vaccine mandates is an excessive and unwarranted step.
It is an excessive step because college and university student populations contain very few people who are at high risk of mortality or other extreme consequences of COVID-19 infection.
It is an unwarranted step because those who are at risk can be and in most cases already have been vaccinated or have developed natural immunity.
And it is unwarranted as well because the vaccines currently available offer only partial protection from infection while posing significant dangers of debilitating and long-lasting side effects.
These are matters that arouse passionate dispute on all sides. The NAS does not pose as a medical authority. We do, however, credit ourselves with the capacity to read and understand articles in the mainstream scientific and medical literature. From that we conclude with very high confidence that COVID-19 is a disease that primarily threatens individuals over age 60 who also have co-morbidities such as obesity or a compromised immune system. Protecting those most at risk ought to be a priority of public health interventions. Mandating interventions for low-risk populations is a mistake.
COVID-19 is not a latter-day bubonic plague. Most people who now contract COVID-19 neither die nor suffer from profound debilitation—and among people under the age of 60, far fewer than 1% of those who contract the disease suffer these fatal or life-changing consequences. The official number of fatalities attributed to COVID-19 has been inflated by attributing to COVID-19 a significant number of deaths resulting rather from misguided treatments for COVID-19, as well as by deaths wrongly attributed to COVID-19. According to the University of Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, most people who contract COVID-19 recover fully within three weeks, without any long-term damage. Young people, such as the vast majority of college students, possess even lower risks of death or long-term illness from COVID-19 than the average adult under age 60. Most young people who contract COVID-19 remain entirely asymptomatic—and are not contagious. They generally risk neither themselves nor others.
The American government and private institutions should have responded to COVID-19 by instituting public health measures tailored to the situation, following the principles of risk management and carefully weighing the costs and benefits of each intervention. Instead they have imposed extraordinarily broad and coercive policies that cannot be justified by any granular assessment of risk. The entire regulatory panoply of mandatory shut-downs, social distancing, and masking have never been subject to the simplest cost-benefit analysis—and we doubt that any of these measures would survive a risk-management critique.
Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines are by far the most egregious of the broad and coercive public health policies imposed on the American people.
Vaccination poses a particularly complex problem in risk management. The costs and benefits of vaccination policies to America as a whole need to be analyzed in relation both to the costs and benefits of the larger array of public health policies and to the individual risk to each individual undergoing vaccination—risk which shifts with each individual. In higher education, faculty and staff include many at higher risk than most students. Colleges and universities should take special measures to ensure the good health of employees who are especially at risk from COVID-19, but should also respect the rights of all individuals to make their own medical decisions on matters that pose little or no risk to others. We reject the idea that accommodating the unfounded fears of a few should take precedence over respecting the autonomy of everyone else.
Vaccination policy is not an easy or straightforward question, either at the level of the republic or of the university. There may be cases where individual autonomy must give way to the broader needs of society. The COVID-19 epidemic has been presented as such a case, but at least in the context of colleges and universities, the evidence does not support that call for overriding the free choices of individuals.
Mandatory vaccination is an invasive procedure that presents significant risks to those who undergo it. These factors include:
- The COVID-19 vaccines are neither 100% effective nor long-lasting—the growing call for repeated booster-shots acknowledges the latter point. The individual and collective benefit of vaccination is real, but these short-comings should weigh substantially in any cost-benefit analysis.
- The COVID-19 vaccines possess known real costs. Recorded adverse effects by people who have received vaccines have been both serious and deadly, and include inflammation of heart tissue (myocarditis and pericarditis), cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) or brain swelling, muscle weakness and paralysis, blood clots, stroke, and heart attacks. The United States Vaccine Adverse Event Report System (VAERS) has recorded wide-spread adverse reactions—adverse events for COVID-19 injections have managed to outstrip decades of recorded adverse reactions for all other vaccines combined in mere months. Since VAERS data are based on voluntary reporting, which usually understates the real adverse reaction rate, the actual number of adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines may be substantially higher than the reported rate. Not every death or adverse reaction necessarily should be directly attributed to the COVID-19 vaccine—but by the same logic, not every death or adverse reaction by people who had COVID-19 infections should be attributed to COVID-19. Contrariwise, if comorbidity should still count for COVID-19 statistics, it should also count for vaccine statistics. These costs also should weigh substantially in any cost-benefit analysis.
- The COVID-19 vaccines possess potential long-term costs. The currently available injections use novel and experimental procedures, which received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Emergency approval to provide some counter to COVID-19 may have been appropriate, but the emergency approval process necessarily side-stepped the usual FDA approval process, which often takes years to ensure that substances injected into humans are safe in both the immediate and long-term. These potential costs also should weigh substantially in any cost-benefit analysis.
- Many Americans may already possess immunity to COVID-19, whether naturally or from exposure to the disease
- Each American’s health profile possesses an individual combination of costs and benefits that should be assessed in judging the risk of a vaccine. A mandate removes the individual’s ability to judge about their own individual risk, and how they should act.
- Effective treatments for COVID-19 already exist and new pills to treat the infection are already in development. The current availability and likely existence in the near future of alternatives to vaccines greatly weakens the imperative for a vaccine mandate.
We also place greater confidence in principle in the arguments of skeptics against the “professional epidemiological consensus,” because the increasingly authoritarian procedures and ideological dogmas of the academy have infected the medical sciences as well, and reduced our confidence in any “consensus” judgment, especially one with political implications.
Trust Science, Not “Science”
Our public health experts were notoriously unwilling to condemn the Black Lives Matter protests and riots for breaking social-distance regulations—and have failed to notice that those protests and riots did not appreciably spread COVID-19. Most epidemiologists dismissed the possible use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 out of political pique with President Trump, at the cost of an unknown number of lives. More generally, our medical professors are so addled by ideology, or fearful of their ideological censors, that they are unwilling even to state plainly that sex is biological and that there are only two sexes. None of these factors speak directly to the question of a vaccine mandate. But they argue that no American should have any presumptive confidence in any professional medical consensus, epidemiological or otherwise, until the American medical community has rid itself of its authoritarian procedures and ideological dogmas.
These factors together convince us that a vaccine mandate does not accord with a nuanced consideration of risk. We agree with the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, as well as with other medical and legal professionals throughout the world, that a judicious assessment of the costs and benefits of vaccination argues against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
An Abrogation of American Liberties
A judicious assessment of the costs and benefits of vaccination argues against the abrogation of American liberties that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate requires. Every American should recollect that what is at issue is not simply a matter of public health, but a question of the proper maintenance of our constitutional republic and of our individual liberties. A federal vaccine mandate overrides both the separation of powers between the federal and state governments and individual liberties. Institutional vaccine mandates override individual liberties. Only an extraordinary emergency could justify these suspensions of regular government and individual freedom. A vaccine mandate—which is indeed an extraordinary public health measure—must meet a very high bar to justify itself both on medical and on political grounds.
It is one thing to offer Americans the opportunity to assess their own risks and to choose to take a vaccine. It is a very different thing to remove their ability to assess their own risks and to require them to take a vaccine.
We judge that the facts about COVID-19 come nowhere near to meeting the requirements needed to suspend our republican self-government and our individual liberties. This is not a purely epidemiological opinion—our cost-benefit analysis also weighs the political costs of a vaccine mandate, and we assign a very high cost to any degradation of republican liberty. We think that any consideration of a vaccine mandate must include an assessment of the political costs if it is to weigh in the opinions of our fellow Americans.
Public health officials and the medical community should adopt a full-spectrum approach to fighting COVID-19. They should encourage Americans to use a combination of preventive care, drugs, and vaccines, by means of rational and respective persuasion which respects Americans’ freedom to choose their own medical treatments and assess their own risks. They should not call for vaccine mandates—and neither should any component of the American government, or any institution of higher education.
NAS calls for the rescission of all vaccine mandates, in the republic as a whole and America’s universities in particular.
Image: RF._.studio, Public Domain