The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vaccine mandates are working. Let’s make them the norm.

A nurses fills up coronavirus booster vaccination syringes in Southfield, Mich. on Sept. 29. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

There are positive signs that business and government vaccine mandates are succeeding. While the total number of unvaccinated people in the United States is still way too large — only 64.9 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated — the idea of mandates is taking hold, and hopefully will become the norm.

United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to require vaccines for its workforce, and the results are impressive. Out of a workforce of roughly 67,000 people, fewer than 3 percent applied for exemptions on health or religious grounds, and 1 percent didn’t comply. The company said it has begun the process of terminating 593 employees who declined to be vaccinated and did not seek exemption. The airline’s chiefs got it right in their statement that “everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated, and vaccine requirements work.”

New York state, where the virus took a heavy toll early in the pandemic, imposed a Monday deadline for hospital and nursing home workers to get vaccinated. State officials announced 92 percent of more than 650,000 employees had received at least one dose, a significant leap from just a week ago. Undoubtedly, those who are terminated for refusing to get the shot will create staffing shortfalls and potential disruption. But the misguided actions of a small fraction of workers should not mask the larger good served by widespread vaccination to brake the pandemic and save lives.

In France, protesters took to the streets after President Emmanuel Macron announced July 12 the establishment of a health pass, based on proof of vaccination, previous infection or a negative test. The pass, a simple QR code, is required to enter bars, restaurants, theaters and many outdoor public spaces. Look what happened: France had an immediate jump in vaccination. As of Sept. 27, nearly 65.4 percent of the population was fully vaccinated, and more than 74 percent had at least one dose.

When people are confronted with a stark choice — whether to have a job and vaccine immunity, or neither — most will choose the job and the shot. A proper option for exemption for health or religious reasons is essential, but it is irresponsible for people who have no legitimate reason to refuse vaccination. The unvaccinated are filling up hospitals and morgues and prolonging the pandemic.

The next step is for mandates to become a norm. In the 1970s, schools were a major site for measles, a highly contagious illness, but subsequent imposition of mandates and provision of free vaccines proved highly successful in eradicating sustained school outbreaks. Influenza is another highly contagious virus; vaccinating health-care workers can reduce illness and save lives of patients. When BJC HealthCare, a large Midwestern system with 26,000 employees, mandated vaccination in 2008, more than 98 percent of its workers got the shot. This is the kind of vaccine uptake — willing and widespread — that we need. In the year 2000, the United States had the highest immunization coverage and the lowest rates of vaccine-preventable disease ever documented. It’s a goal worth striving for once again.