The old legal maxim is that everything which is not forbidden is permitted. Many public-health experts apparently have their own version of this rule — whatever is not forbidden must be mandated.
It was less than three months ago that the Food and Drug Administration approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children on an emergency basis, and already there are debates whether schools should mandate it and jurisdictions prohibit unvaccinated kids from engaging in activities.
California, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., have scheduled mandates to take effect when the FDA fully approves the vaccine for kids. Los Angeles and Oakland have mandates, although they've been delayed. New York City mayor Eric Adams says he's weighing a mandate, and bills in the New York State legislature would implement one statewide.
When the FDA advisory panel met last October, several experts said they hoped the move wouldn't lead to mandates. FDA official Peter Marks pooh-poohed the possibility, evidently underestimating the irresistible urge of officialdom in blue areas toward pandemic coercion.
The decision whether kids get vaccinated or not properly belongs to parents. Yes, other vaccinations are a condition of attending school, but COVID vaccinations aren't going to eliminate COVID, the way, say, Jonas Salk's miraculous innovation eliminated polio. With the advent of omicron, it's not even clear childhood vaccinations will do much to dent the spread. On top of this, COVID is relatively mild in children, whereas polio was a dreaded childhood disease.
If the case for adults getting vaccinated is extraordinarily strong, it is much less so for minors, especially for healthy younger kids who tend to be at the least risk.
Why, parents might think, take any chances with a new vaccine if is it protecting from a minimal threat (or their kids already had the virus)? Even if you believe this is the wrong call, it's not obviously unreasonable.
The medical news outlet Stat reported on an FDA model that looked at the risk to boys ages 5-11 from myocarditis, a heart condition that can affect boys in particular after getting vaccinated. According to Stat, the FDA analysts concluded that although "the vaccine might trigger slightly more myocarditis-related hospitalizations in boys than COVID-19 hospitalizations it would prevent in the same population, the benefits still might outweigh the risks, given that COVID cases that require hospitalization are generally more severe than myocarditis cases."
Rather than trust parents to weigh such considerations on their own, places like Los Angeles want to bring down the hammer. The school board there wanted students 12 and older to be vaccinated by Jan. 10. Then, unvaccinated kids would be relegated to remote learning. When the school board realized that 30,000 students weren't vaccinated, a number that would overwhelm whatever dubious capacity the district has for remote learning, it backed off.
The calculus here makes no sense. To avoid an unlikely harm — unvaccinated kids getting a serious case of COVID — the schools wanted to impose an almost-guaranteed harm by excluding thousands of students from the classroom, kneecapping their education. At best, this is playing chicken with the well-being of children; at worst, it is thoughtless and cruel policy in stubborn pursuit of the goal of substituting the judgment of public-school mandarins for parents.
Already, roughly 40,000 students have dropped out or disengaged from L.A. schools this year, and the school board wanted effectively to match that via ham-handed enforcement of its mandate.
The same impulse to punish kids whose parents don't want to go along is seen in vaccine passport policies, like that in New York City, that exclude unvaccinated children from a swath of activities in public places and from after-school programs. It's as if public officials got together and decided children hadn't experienced enough social isolation already during the pandemic.
One can only hope there's enough pushback from parents who value their judgment and authority over that of the politicians and administrators whose default is mandates over persuasion.
Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry.