Who Is the “Irrational Majority” Here?

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has declined to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for school employees and students on the grounds that it lacked the “clear statutory authority” to do so, reports The Virginia Mercury. Federal agencies have yet to add the vaccine to its childhood immunization schedule. “While recommended, it’s not been formally added,” said Dr. Lauri Forlano, deputy commissioner for population health.

Here’s another reason not to compel COVID vaccinations for students: they’re not needed.

According to the VDH’s own data, here’s how COVID-related hospitalizations break down by age group:

Fewer than 1,200 Virginians under 20 years old have been hospitalized for COVID. Only 16 have died.

VDH does not have data showing the number of hospitalized Virginians with co-morbidities such as obesity, diabetes, or lung disease, which are known to be associated with acute cases. But there is ample evidence from other studies and reports that the vast majority of children hospitalized for COVID are obese. A reasonable policy would be to educate parents of at-risk students about the elevated danger to their children and urge them to get vaccinated.

The one seemingly plausible argument I’ve seen for school-vax mandates is to protect teachers and staff. But even that is shaky. First, it is widely acknowledged that children are less likely than adults to spread the virus. Second, while vaccinations indisputably reduce hospitalizations, deaths, and the severity of symptoms — which is why we get them — they do not halt the spread of the virus. That reality is underscored by the fact that the level of reported cases in Virginia is almost as high as it was a year ago despite the fact that 5.4 million Virginians have been vaccinated with at least one dose, and 1.4 million have been vaxxed with two shots plus a booster.

If you start with a population of school children less likely to spread the virus to begin with, and vaccinate them so that they are only somewhat less likely to be infectious, you get an incremental reduction in transmission. The question arises as to whether  that incremental reduction makes a measurable difference in risk to teachers and staff. Because the vaccination of children is such a new thing, the matter has not been studied.

But we do know this: if teachers are worried about the risk to their health… they can get vaccinated. If we overlay the lower rate of viral spread in school populations with the protective shield of voluntary vaccinations, teachers and staff are extremely low risk. Is it reasonable for teachers to demand to be at zero risk?

The Mercury leads its story with a quote from Kirsten Calleja, a Virginia mother who had petitioned VDH for mandatory vaccinations. “The irrational majority should not be dictating the public health policy for Virginia or the schools.”

I quite agree. But who’s the “irrational majority” — the childhood anti-vaxxers or the germophobes?

Correction: This column has been corrected to state that 16 Virginians under 20 years old have died from COVID. The original version incorrectly stated that zero had died.