While mandating masks in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has garnered some criticism, mandating vaccines for students and staff could very well turn out to be quite another ballgame, one of Maryland’s leading public health officials told a panel of state lawmakers on Monday afternoon.
“In the case of masks it seems really simple. It is one of a few things that you can do. It is not a huge infringement. It works pretty well,” Dr. Daniel Salmon, a professor and the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said at a virtual Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing. “I think with vaccines the equation is a little bit more complicated.”
Salmon added: “I never would have predicted how controversial masks have become. I think the argument for teachers is easier and more compelling than it is for children. Both because it is a workplace issue and therefore a requirement for employment, versus a child, who is a vulnerable population.”
But if vaccines are to become mandatory in schools, teachers should be vaccinated before students are, Salmon said.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, who is chair of the committee, followed-up and asked Salmon whether the FDA’s recent decision to give full approval to Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and the CDC’s recommendation that everyone 12 years of age and older should take it might make it less “complicated” for schools to mandate the vaccine for children in that age group.
Salmon said he agreed with Pinsky’s premise, but that right now it may be too early for vaccine mandates.
“Yes. And we have seen full approval now for one vaccine… But I think the burden for safety is higher to make it mandatory than it is to make it authorized or licensed. They are all important. The approval is meaningful…I would argue that to make it mandatory, and I think many people would agree, that you need more confidence in the safety than you would to simply to make it available.”
Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore and Howard, who is a physician, inquired as to when it might be “appropriate” to mandate the vaccine for children.
Salmon said it would be wise to wait for full approval.
“My own belief is that we need approval and not just authorization in order to mandate it. And we do not have that yet, at least for younger children. So that is an important piece. I do not think it is necessary.”
Lam pressed Salmon for further explanation as to why he believes it is necessary to wait that long.
Salmon said public support is critical when considering vaccine mandates.
“My answer is not just about risks and benefits. But it is pragmatic. And if you try to mandate a vaccine before you have widespread support you really risk public backlash. And HPV is a great lesson in that. The premature effort really undermined the immunization program for decades. We could be in a place where the benefits outweigh the risks, so there would be an ethical or even a legal argument for mandating it. But if pragmatically it creates a great backlash, you may not actually accomplish much, other than undermining confidence in the program.”
But Dr. Monica Goldson, Chief Executive Officer of Prince George’s County Public Schools, said health considerations were the only criteria she considered when mandating vaccines for all of the teachers and staff under her jurisdiction.
“If I focused on the political piece of it, I would never be able to make a decision. And so I have to focus on the health side of it. I’m sorry.”
Goldson said that while the school system does provide medical and religious exemptions, staff members who are not able to show proof of vaccination must submit to routine testing.
As of today most of Maryland’s public schools are back in session.
After Labor Day all of the state’s public schools will have returned for the 2021-22 academic year.