Why Mandate COVID Vaccinations for Low-Risk Populations?

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia announced Tuesday that it was extending its COVID-19 vaccination mandate from students to faculty and staff. The university will provide exemptions for religious and medical reasons, but non-vaccinated faculty and staff will be required to submit to weekly COVID-19 tests if they are to return to the university grounds this fall, reports UVA Today.

As in the past, UVa officials offered no medical or scientific justification for the mandates. Rector James Murray has said that the university followed “advice from doctors, infectious disease specialists and public health experts at the UVA Medical School and Health System.” But the university has refused to release documents detailing that advice on the grounds that they are President Jim Ryan’s “working papers.”

Presumably, the mandate could be justified on the public health grounds that unvaccinated individuals are potential carriers of the COVID virus, strains of which are significantly more infectious than a year ago. If students and employees wish to participate in the university community, they need to be vaccinated to protect others, if not themselves. But college-age students are at significantly lower risk of infection than the general population, and some evidence suggests that students who have caught the virus are as protected from reinfection as people who have received the vaccine.

There is growing sentiment in the medical community that COVID-19 vaccines are not as risk-free as commonly portrayed. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, Joseph a. Ladapo and Harvey A. Risch, a UCLA associate professor of medicine and a Yale epidemiologist respectively, say that medical risks posed by the vaccines may outweigh the risks of non-vaccination for young people and those with previous exposure to the virus.

Four patterns have emerged from reports filed with the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), the authors say: low platelets (thrombocytopenia); noninfectious myocarditis, or heart inflammation, especially for those under 30; deep-vein thrombosis; and death. VAERS records 321 cases of myocarditis within five days of people receiving a vaccination. The findings warrant further study, but the implication is that the risks of a COVID -19 vaccine “may outweigh the benefits from certain low-risk populations, such as children, young adults, and people who have recovered from Covid-19. This is especially true in regions with low levels of community spread, since the likelihood of illness depends on exposure risk.”

The issues raised by Ladapo and Risch are particularly pertinent for universities, more than 400 of which across the country have enacted similar vaccination mandates, according to published reports.

As part of its epidemic-fighting measures last year, UVa conducted frequent testing and identified roughly 2,800 students who had contracted the virus. As Ladapo and Risch point out, “Not a single published study has demonstrated that patients with a prior infection benefit from COVID-19 vaccination.”

The university already has these people in its records. What justification is there for compelling them to put themselves at risk from the vaccine (small though it may be) in order to provide zero benefit to the public health? UVa refuses to say. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free inquiry and intellectual openness. Isn’t it common sense to share the scientific knowledge behind the vaccination mandate? Isn’t an informed public better equipped to deal with the virus than an ignorant public?

UVa’s refusal to disseminate the science behind its decision prompts suspicions that something else is going on.

Ladapo and Risch suggest that the vaccination issue has become so politicized that an honest discussion of the cost-benefit tradeoffs are being suppressed. I would argue that a herd instinct is at work as well. When everyone else is mandating vaccinations — Inova Health System, the dominant health provider in Northern Virginia, is also requiring vaccinations of all employees, it was reported today — there is safety in the herd. No explanation required.