COVID-19: We Need A Vaccine Policy For Ontario Schools
by Raywat Deonandan, PhD
Epidemiologist & Associate Professor
University of Ottawa
(I add my credentials to these COVID-19 blog posts in case they get shared. I want readers to know that my opinion is supposedly an educated and informed one)
A major newspaper asked me to write an op-ed on mandatory vaccination for schoolchildren. But that was a week ago and it looks like they’re not going to run with it after all. So I guess I’ll just publish it here on my blog instead….
We Need A Vaccine Policy For Ontario Schools
There are four tools for making schools as COVID-safe as possible: ventilation, masking, screening, and vaccination. Ontario’s back-to-school plan relies on three of those. The glaring omission is any effort to maximize vaccine uptake among staff and students.
Mandating vaccination among some professions has widespread public support. Health care workers, first responders, personal care workers, and teachers are daily exposed to scores of people, many of whom are unvaccinated or vulnerable. The benefits of compelling vaccination for such professions far outweigh the risks, both physical and philosophical. Frankly, if you don’t want the jab, then get another job.
Adults in key jobs are one thing. But vaccinating children against COVID is quite another. For adults, the risk vs reward computation is straightforward. While vaccination poses a vanishingly small risk, the likely negative outcomes of actual COVID infection are so dire that vaccination is clearly the best choice.
Children, on the other hand, do contract the disease, but less commonly. And some will develop “long COVID”, be hospitalized and even die, though seemingly at lower rates than adults. So for kids, the risk vs reward calculation is not as clear, since a tiny proportion of vaccinated children will experience serious, though treatable, adverse events, like mycocarditis.
For kids, the personal risk and personal reward are both small. The tie-breaker might be the reward to society: getting a significant step closer to herd immunity. It might be mathematically impossible to get to that magical threshold without immunizing children.
This distinguishes COVID vaccination from the nine jabs that are presently mandatory for attending Ontario schools. They include tetanus and diphtheria and other diseases that were once societal scourges but that have been tamed by technology. In all nine, vaccination is intended primarily for personal protection. But for COVID, it would be mostly for the protection of others.
While the COVID vaccine will likely be added to the list of compulsory shots eventually, now is not the time. This is because of the tightrope that public health communicators must presently tread to win the hearts and minds of the vaccine hesitant. Making this particular vaccine mandatory for children might drive the hesitant in to the arms of the hardcore anti-vaxxers who equate public health with authoritarianism. We would thus increase the behaviour we seek to suppress.
And make no mistake, we cannot afford to lose the battle for hearts and minds. We will need the cooperation of the entire populace in months to come, as booster shots become likely and as the struggle against COVID enters an endemic phase.
But not compelling student vaccination doesn’t mean having no vaccination policy at all. The price for exercising one’s bodily freedoms can include more stringent masking requirements, mandatory regular asymptomatic testing, and restriction from certain high risk extracurricular activities.
We can cajole, incentivize, and educate our way to higher student vaccine uptake. Vaccine hesitancy is fueled by fear, misinformation and apathy. Making vaccination compulsory addresses the apathy, but accentuates the fear and creates vulnerability to misinformation.