By SEAN QUINTAL
Vaccine opponents often cloak themselves in the raiment of patriotism. But they might want to consult an expert of American patriotism: one of the nation’s founders and its first president.
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington immunized his troops against smallpox, even against their will. He told Virginia Governor Patrick Henry that a deadly virus was, “more dangerous than the enemy’s sword.” The mandate worked. Smallpox had previously killed one-third of those infected. After Washington’s mandate the disease largely disappeared from the ranks.
Twenty years later, an English scientist discovered a safer vaccination method using cowpox, a similar but milder virus. Once states started requiring their residents to be vaccinated, pockets of resistance swelled amongst the public. People cited personal safety or religious beliefs to oppose vaccines (Why challenge the plans of The Creator?). As states’ mandates were challenged in court, the issue ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905. The justices ruled in favor of mandates. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in the decision, “The liberty secured by the Constitution does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times … wholly freed from restraint.” He elaborated that the Constitution rests upon “the fundamental principle of the social compact…that all shall be governed by certain laws for the protection (and) safety … of the people, and not for … the private interests of any one man.”
In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court again decided that public good can outweigh certain claims of individual liberty when it comes to health and welfare. In its decision upholding a school’s decision to bar a student from enrolling without proof of vaccination, the Court wrote, “it is within the police power of the State to enact a compulsory vaccination law.” In the century since, a string of anti-vax lawsuits have been similarly struck down.
Today, Armed Services personnel submit to a long list of vaccine mandates, and health care workers are in many places required to have multiple vaccinations as a condition of employment. And all 50 states have vaccination requirements for children to be admitted to school. So, despite the performative indignity of many Republicans today, vaccine mandates are a settled matter of law, and they predate the country’s inception.
But it’s not simply that vax mandates are legal; more importantly, mandates work. Multiple studies show that school mandates have increased vaccination rates in all 50 states and have dramatically suppressed, and in some cases nearly eliminated, the spread of preventable diseases. In the 1970s, for example, Alaska had a serious measles outbreak. Almost 10% of students (~7,400) could not provide proof of vaccination and were forced to leave school. Just one month later, however, fewer than 51 students were still excluded, and no further cases of measles occurred.
These facts have not prevented the malicious and the mendacious from spreading disinformation and outright lies about the proven efficacy and safety of the Covid vaccines. Most repulsive are those who feign righteous indignation and make claims of personal liberty, or even more ridiculously, creeping tyranny. Among the most egregious of these are a minority of law enforcement personnel and police unions.
As a marker of conservative tribal identity, police officer unions, and many sheriffs, have huffed and puffed about vax mandates, and how they would quit rather than get vaccinated. Like most right-wing whining, however, those threats have proven hollow. In New York, for example, the NYPD’s union leader warned that as many as 10,000 officers would be pulled from patrol due to vaccine mandates. How accurate was that prediction? The total number of officers who left over the mandate is 34; that’s out of 35,000 officers, 85% of whom are now vaccinated. What those willfully ignorant vax resistors fail to acknowledge, however, is that five times as many police officers have died of COVID (476) since the start of the pandemic, as have died from gunfire (94).
Police are paid by the taxpayers to protect public safety, not endanger it. If those self-important cops who preen theatrically about “personal liberty” threaten to quit, then let them. For every one of them, there are likely 100 well-qualified candidates to take their place. If they would rather score rhetorical points in their Facebook groups than protect the citizens who fund their salaries, then let them find another occupational sandbox that will indulge their childish pouting. One might suggest a position as a security guard at a conservative news outlet. Except Newsmax requires all its employees be vaccinated, and Fox News’ vax policy is even more strict than President Biden’s.
Vaccine mandates have been a part of America since its beginning. Our courts have deemed them legal, and history validates their effectiveness. What is more patriotic than recognizing the interconnectedness of our shared health and well-being as Americans? What more demonstrates our love of country than taking simple steps to protect not just our own families, but our neighbor’s family as well? And what more embodies public service than recognizing one’s individual rights are inextricable from the rights of our fellow citizens? If we want to display our patriotism, then we should all do our part and get vaccinated. George Washington would be proud.
— Sean Quintal is a retired law enforcement officer. He writes on behalf of the La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club. The club meets the first Wednesday of each month at La Mesa Community Center.