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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The evidence is building: Vaccine mandates work — and well

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)
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A union representing Massachusetts state troopers sought to make a splash this week in its fight against the state’s coronavirus vaccine mandate. Dozens of troopers had submitted resignation paperwork over the mandate, the State Police Association of Massachusetts announced Monday after an adverse court ruling. It suggested that the mandate-linked resignations would deplete an agency that is “already critically short staffed.”

What if such mandates mean our crime-fighters can’t fight crime? That’s a scary prospect.

The reality, though, is far from as dire as it might have seemed. And the totality of the anecdotal data we have so far on coronavirus vaccine mandates points to one conclusion: They work — quite well, in fact.

Two bits of context were often lost in the coverage of the Massachusetts news. One was that the troopers come from a force of about 2,000. The news release did not specify a number, but the “dozens” could be as little as about 1 percent of troopers.

The other is that, as we’ve since found out, it’s not clear how many troopers actually will leave the force. As of later Monday, the Massachusetts State Police said only one trooper actually had retired over the mandate. Others could follow, but even the union said some might go to other departments with less-stringent requirements.

And even as that news landed Monday, we were receiving plenty of data pointing to the effectiveness of vaccine mandates for state employees and businesses. Many of these mandates were announced this summer and are reaching deadlines, meaning they provide a good barometer for how effective the mandates are.

United Airlines was one of the first big companies to adopt a mandate, and it announced this week that 98.5 percent of employees have been vaccinated. Just 593 out of 67,000 employees face being fired for refusing the vaccine.

The success of the mandate approach is even more evident when you compare it with another big carrier, Delta Air Lines. Delta, too, has sought to apply pressure on employees; it will charge a $200-per-month health insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees starting Nov. 1. And it, too, has seen compliance grow, but only to 82 percent. It is possible that could still grow ahead of Nov. 1, when it starts hitting the unvaccinated employees’ pocketbooks. But United is clearly way ahead of the game when it comes to employee vaccinations, which is difficult to attach to anything but its mandate.

Most of the news on this front comes from hospital systems, where there has been strong compliance. Here are the numbers in New York, as reported by the New York Times on Tuesday:

  • The entire system, an early indicator for vaccine mandates, has gone from about three-fourths of hospital employees and nursing-home workers being vaccinated when the policy was announced a month and a half ago to 92 percent today.
  • Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., announced a 95.5 percent vaccination rate.
  • Albany Medical Center said only 200 of its 11,000 employees either did not get shots or did not seek exemptions — around 2 percent. Those employees were suspended and given a week to comply.
  • St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx went from 20 percent unvaccinated as recently as last week to just 3 percent.
  • Bassett Healthcare Network in central New York said 97 percent of employees are vaccinated.
  • Rome Health in Upstate New York said 98.2 percent are vaccinated after a late surge.
  • The Mohawk Valley Health System went up from 70 percent over the summer to 95.6 percent today.

And the evidence elsewhere:

That last one is a key example. Last week, the system had announced the suspensions of 375 employees for refusing the vaccines — about 1 percent of its workforce. But about 200 of them ultimately complied. Over and over, the examples suggest that as deadlines approach, compliance increases substantially in ways that suggest that the vast majority of these people wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated without the mandates.

There are, however, examples of the mandates not working as well; certain hospitals in New York are struggling more than others. The Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo has said 20 percent of nursing-home staffers were placed on unpaid leave Monday for refusing the vaccines, and it is scrambling to fill the gaps. Oneida Health lost about 12 percent of its workforce.

And in the San Francisco Bay area, about 10 percent of police, hospital and school employees have yet to comply, with deadlines approaching.

None of it means these departures do not and will not test these organizations. In many cases, they do, in small hospital systems already dealing with a pandemic. It’s also possible that those with strong compliance numbers are more likely to publicize that.

But when such vaccine mandates were considered and announced — and even up through today after President Biden announced a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers — much of the pushback from the anti-mandate crowd has been an argument that these measures would “harden” opposition to vaccines.

“It is contrary to getting the vaccines out,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said this month of Biden’s announcement. “It will harden the hesitancy out there, and it’s not the right time. It’s not the right message.”

“Vaccine hesitancy is complicated, and overreaching government mandates can make people even more hesitant to get the vaccine,” a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said last week.

That might indeed be true! It might make people resent being forced to do something they don’t want to or hadn’t yet decided to do. But the evidence also increasingly suggests that it spurs that vast majority of the resistant ultimately to comply, hard feelings or not.