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Tuesday March 28th

'At a loss': Professors and lawmakers react to rejection of school vaccine mandate

Students can get vaccinated at the Carolina Vaccination Clinic, pictured here on Feb. 5, 2022.
Buy Photos Students can get vaccinated at the Carolina Vaccination Clinic, pictured here on Feb. 5, 2022.

Last week, the North Carolina Commission for Public Health unanimously voted against a proposal that would have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for high school students aged 17 and older.

On Oct. 1, over 200 professors from across the UNC System signed a petition for administrative review advocating for a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all college students in North Carolina.

Although the commission did not vote on the Oct. 1 petition, it was cited in its discussion of the proposal to require the vaccine for either 17-year-old students or those entering the 12th grade, whichever comes first.

While government and public health officials in the state had said such a mandate would be premature, some faculty who signed the petition for a college vaccine mandate disagree.

Vaccine mandate debate

UNC professor of philosophy Ram Neta, who signed the petition, said that the COVID-19 vaccine should not be treated differently from other vaccines.

“The reason why I signed the petition was I thought that whatever reasons the state has for protecting its residents from measles by mandating a measles vaccine in institutions where lots of people congregate, the same reasons it has for mandating a COVID vaccine,” Neta said.

He said he disagrees with the commission's vote against the proposal for a vaccine mandate for high school seniors.

"I don’t know why they voted the way they did," he said. "I didn’t see any rationale provided for the decision. I’m not saying there wasn’t a rationale, so maybe there was, but I didn’t see the rationale.”

Marc Lange, also a professor of philosophy at UNC who signed the petition, referred to COVID-19 vaccine requirements for North Carolina college students as a "common-sense public health measure."

“It is no different from requiring them (as we do) to have vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, rubella, mumps and other communicable illnesses,” he said in an email. “It has been said that one person’s right to swing his fists ends where another person’s nose begins.”

N.C. Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, Wayne, co-chairperson of the Health Care Senate Standing Committee, said that although he has been vaccinated against COVID-19, he does not believe that the state government should mandate the vaccine.

“I’m just not a big fan of health mandates,” Perry said. “I think that it’s a personal decision for someone.”

Perry said that while the COVID-19 vaccine helps prevent serious illness, it is different from other vaccines because individuals can still catch and spread the virus.

“I’m not sure that the vaccine that we have today rises to the level of some of the previous inoculations,” he said.

Neta said many legislators who support vaccines and booster shots will oppose mandates out of fear of political backlash.

"If the constituents that voted you into office are by and large opposed to some decision, then you’re not going to cross those constituents for fear of getting primaried," he said.

He also said he did not understand why the commission voted against the proposal, since they are not as bound by political pressures. 

Looking forward

The proposal was opposed by prominent health and government officials across the state, including Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley, according to the News & Observer.

Both Cooper and Kinsley left the possibility of reevaluating the mandate in the future open.

"With information about vaccine doses and booster scheduling still evolving, we believe it is premature for the Commission to codify the immunization," Kinsley said.

Perry said that he does not anticipate the Cooper administration imposing any future mandates.

“I think it’s based upon the math of people knowing that vaccines are readily available, looking at the backlash that (the mandates have) faced,” he said.

Neta said that, at this point, he is not sure what would convince the public or lawmakers to support vaccine mandates.

“I’m at a loss,” he said. “This is why I’ve stopped signing things and trying to act on behalf of this cause … because I don’t have a good enough understanding of what motivates the opponents of COVID vaccine mandates specifically. Anything that I ever thought to say, I’ve seen it said somewhere.”


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