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The question Republicans still can’t really answer on vaccine mandates

Lawmakers and health officials on Sept. 12 responded to President Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates to contain the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

About a week ago, the Miami Herald editorial board wrote a pretty prescient piece on the Florida GOP’s anti-vaccine mandate posture. It noted as others have that, despite Republicans “my body, my choice” stance, the state doesn’t really offer a choice about plenty of other vaccines, which are mandated.

At least for now, it concluded: “ … Today, we cannot so easily dismiss the idea that lunacy might prevail against established — and effective — public-health measures.”

Sure enough, by late this week an influential Republican state senator reportedly said the state could indeed “review” mandates for other vaccines.

State Sen. Manny Diaz, who leads a key health committee, later walked this back (his office didn’t comment to The Washington Post). But this would indeed be the logical extension of the GOP’s oversimplified talking point. And Florida wouldn’t have been the first state to venture into this territory.

More than anything, though, Diaz’s comments highlight the GOP’s continual inability to reconcile this talking point with the reality that many vaccines are mandated. Many top Republicans have cast coronavirus vaccine mandates as wrong and even un-American.

When he apparently suggested an openness to reviewing other vaccine mandates, Diaz did suggest there was a difference between the coronavirus vaccine and others.

“I think there’s a distinction when you have something that is proven to work and doesn’t have any side effects,” Diaz said.

There are a couple of problems with that. One is that the coronavirus vaccine has indeed been proved to work; it’s not a 100 percent solution, but vaccines in general aren’t. The other is that it’s hardly the only vaccine to carry side effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists a number of potential, though rare, side effects for the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine and others. As many as 10 percent of children receiving the MMR vaccine develop fevers and rashes. And when the vaccine was launched, studies showed significant numbers of people reporting potential side effects, up to and including death. Lots of them were never actually connected to the vaccine. (Sound familiar?)

Diaz’s attempt to draw such a distinction between vaccines echoes the other Republicans who have struggled with this question.

Several of them have argued that the difference is in how much Americans mistrust the coronavirus vaccine — without mentioning that much of that mistrust has been speciously sown, largely unchecked, by their own allies. Others have argued against President Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate by saying this should be a state issue — but then also saying their states shouldn’t be in the mandate business.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday” earlier this month, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) was asked to compare the coronavirus vaccine to the polio vaccine.

“I think this is very different from polio,” Ricketts said. He cited the coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on older people and relatively low death rate for children. He added: “And so, it’s all about balancing these risks. And the risk for this is just such where this is something that we shouldn’t be mandating it.”

Except this is a highly communicable disease that more fortunate people can pass along to less fortunate people. And even if there’s a balancing act, and you accept that there is less we know about this newer vaccine, there’s still the other side of the scale. The worst recorded spike for polio deaths was 6,000 people in 1916 and 1917; we’re currently seeing that many coronavirus deaths every three days. The only side of the balancing act mentioned, though, is the argument against mandates.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) made a federalist case on CNN when it was pointed out that his state mandates vaccines.

“Sure, in Arkansas, we require certain communicable diseases to be vaccinated against in our schools,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I should support a federal mandate that impacts all the businesses across the board and has a stretch of federal power that we’ve never seen before.”

So CNN host Erin Burnett then asked him why his state wouldn’t do a mandate. Hutchinson said he worried it would only harden the vaccine opposition.

“Because that’s the larger point that right now,” Hutchinson said. “It is contrary to getting the vaccines out. It will harden the hesitancy out there, and it’s not the right time. It’s not the right message.”

Except we have seen significant evidence that vaccine mandates, when implemented by employers, spur overwhelming compliance 97 percent in the case of United Airlines. It might harden people’s feelings, but it also leads to a softening of actual vaccine resistance. The very point of mandates is to get people to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) was also pressed on this issue by CNN’s Jake Tapper. Tapper, like Burnett, allowed for the federalist argument that it should be states making these decisions.

Reeves indicated a difference between vaccines that can and can’t be mandated was that Mississippi’s vaccine mandates were for kids.

“It is unique to kids and their ability to go to our public schools,” Reeves said. “It’s not vaccines mandated in the workplace.”

Okay, but why is that different? If anything, people are generally more concerned about injecting children than themselves. And again, we’re talking about something that has killed 670,000 Americans.

When Tapper asked why that death toll wasn’t good enough reason for a mandate, Reeves indicated it was because it’s a slippery slope.

“We also have to understand that, as we look forward, if this president has the ability to mandate vaccines, what powers do we not grant this president?” Reeves said. He added that “if we give unilateral authority by one individual to do anything that he wants to do, whether it’s a jab in the arm or anything else, then this country is in deep, deep trouble.”

Slippery-slope arguments are common, but they’re also commonly overwrought. Presidents have plenty of power to do lots of things unilaterally. It leads to the question: What if we just drew the line at allowing a mandate that isn’t actually a vaccine mandate (since you can also just do weekly testing) when there is a once-in-a-century pandemic? Indeed, federal law by design allows for measures beyond the norm when we have emergencies like a public health one, because emergencies require quick and decisive action. It doesn’t mean presidents can do this willy-nilly outside of that context.

The point is that it’s a pretty arbitrary line to draw, which is the overarching thread that runs through many of these explanations.

The GOP was largely convinced to doubt the pandemic and the health experts when Donald Trump and his allies tried to downplay it as being akin to the regular flu. Ultimately, that birthed the kind of vaccine hesitancy we see today, which even pro-vaccine Republicans have been hesitant to combat because it means alienating a key part of the GOP base.

That has meant Republicans were forced to try to shoehorn that skepticism into an approach that doesn’t really line up with their approach to vaccines over the last few decades — or even a few years ago.

And what it ultimately might mean is they’ll either have to figure out why the coronavirus vaccine is truly different and not worth a mandate — despite this disease being deadlier than everything we currently mandate vaccines for — or to apply their newfound “my body, my choice” philosophy more consistently across the board.

As the Miami Herald noted — and as a previous example in Tennessee showed — the vaccine-skeptic beast that has been created here might ultimately demand the latter approach.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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