Demonstrators crowded outside the State House Sunday morning demanding that Governor Charlie Baker rescind a public health mandate that requires most Massachusetts students get the flu vaccine to attend school.
Earlier this month, Baker announced what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation order requiring the vaccination for anyone 6 months or older who is in a school or day care center, with some exemptions.
The mandate, which is intended to reduce flu-related illness during the coronavirus pandemic, has been supported by public health experts. Officials fear that outbreaks of the flu and COVID-19 could overwhelm the state’s health care system.
“I would hope people would understand this is an important part of how we continue to fight the [corona]virus here in Massachusetts,” Baker told reporters at a State House news briefing on Aug. 20. “The more people who get the flu shot don’t get the flu and don’t wind up in the ER.”
On Sunday outside the State House, protesters, some with young children, crowded along Beacon Street to protest the flu shot mandate for students.
Overhead, a television news helicopter was flying as demonstrators occasionally chanted, “We will not comply, we will not comply!”
Among them were a toddler with a sign around his neck that said “My parents call the shots” and a woman with a shirt wrapped around her waist that read “Flu you Baker.”
In front of the State House steps, a series of speakers said they did not want to abide by the flu shot mandate because of distrust in the government and in pharmaceutical companies and concern that they would not have control over their medical decisions.
“This is about using the fear of COVID to take away a person’s ability, and their human right, to make decisions for themselves and their children — unnecessarily,“ said Allison Chapman, a member of the executive leadership team at an organization called Health Choice.
Jonathan Anderson, a member of the town of Sutton’s select board, said he believes the flu shot mandate is “serious overreach by our government.”
“Is this even constitutional?” he said, and the crowd responded with shouts of “No!” “Well, the courts will decide that. We all know it’s not.”
On Facebook, Oppose Overreach - Health Choice 4 Action MA and No Mandatory Flu Shot MA, which organized the rally, called for parents to “stand in solidarity” against the flu vaccine mandate.
“This is a protest created for the parents, by the parents to protect our parental rights and children’s future!” the Facebook post said, calling the state order “outrageous.”
At the rally, police officers mostly kept some distance from the crowd and did not wear helmets or carry visible batons, unlike officers who were on scene during protests against police violence in May and June.
The rally organizers’ post said mask and social distancing rules, imposed by the state to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, would apply to the gathering.
Many people at the rally were not wearing masks, however, or staying far apart from others.
At one point, a speaker called on those in the crowd to hug one another, he said, remind each other that they are human. After he made the request, several people could be seen embracing each other.
In a statement Sunday, a state Department of Public Health spokeswoman said the commonwealth has an obligation to advance policies that protect students, teachers, and staff, particularly during a flu season that overlaps with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As students return to in-person learning in the classroom, this vaccine requirement provides an additional and necessary layer of protection and safety,” the statement said.
Public health experts said on Sunday that extensive studies of the flu vaccine have found it effective at slowing and preventing transmission of the disease, especially when children receive it.
“If we do a large percentage of schoolchildren, it’s going to be less likely to spread,” said Dr. Richard Ellison, an epidemiologist for UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
Ellison and other experts said they are concerned that if the flu season is left unchecked, the combination of influenza and coronavirus could overwhelm the state’s health system.
While the flu vaccine won’t prevent someone from getting COVID-19, officials want to help people avoid getting both diseases at the same time, he said.
During the surge of coronavirus cases in March and April, some COVID-19 victims contracted other viruses as well, including the flu, he said.
“Flu by itself is bad, COVID by itself can be quite bad, and the combination could be even worse,” Ellison said.
Samuel V. Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, also warned against allowing an outbreak of flu to coincide with the pandemic.
Not only could the two crises impact hospitals, but some COVID-19 survivors have lungs weakened from fighting that disease, he said, and will be at increased risk for severe influenza.
“It’s OK to ask questions; [and regarding] vaccines, it’s OK to find them intimidating or scary,” Scarpino said. “It’s not OK to reject science and public health wisdom and put our community at risk.”
Vaccinating children also helps protect families living in multi-generational households from the flu, said Dr. Erica Shenoy, associate chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Children can spread the flu to others in the household who may be vulnerable to complications, including severe disease and hospitalization, she said.
And if someone who is vaccinated gets the disease, public health data shows that person is less likely to require hospitalization, Shenoy said.
People with questions about the flu vaccine should turn to trusted public health sources, including their primary care physician, state health department, or the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said. The agency posts the latest information about the flu vaccine and its benefits on the CDC website.
Jessica Rinaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member. John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.