Many health and immigrant advocates are worried about the low rate of COVID-19 vaccination among Boston’s school bus drivers. If those drivers are going to be fully inoculated by the time they start transporting schoolchildren in September — and they darn well better be — the city needs a strategy to change that number fast.
The strategy should be a mandate. And not just for bus drivers: For workers in some kinds of public-facing city jobs, choosing to create health risks for other people by foregoing vaccines should simply no longer be an option. The shots are safe, effective, and our best hope for stopping a disease that has already killed more than 600,000 Americans. As employers, and as governments, cities have the power to require vaccinations — and now’s the time to use that power.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York did so on Monday, ordering all of its 340,000 workers to get a vaccine or else submit to regular COVID testing. California soon followed with a similar mandate for all state workers. And the US Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to issue a mandate, requiring 115,000 of its front-line health care workers to be vaccinated.
In New York, some of the city’s labor unions protested the requirement, but as private employers consider mandates, it’s wholly appropriate for other public employers to follow New York’s lead.
In Boston, there’s no official number of school bus drivers who have been immunized. The workforce of about 800 drivers is not employed directly by the city but by Transdev, a transportation company that has a contract with Boston Public Schools. But school officials estimate that only half of the bus drivers have been immunized, despite ongoing efforts to offer them the vaccine. Lest we forget, school bus drivers and other labor allies held a protest in early March to demand better safety conditions on buses, as well as vaccinations and testing.
For workers who deal with children under 12 — who cannot be vaccinated — the case for mandatory vaccinations is overwhelming. Teachers or drivers who choose not to get vaccinated are putting at risk the children in their care, who are not able to protect themselves.
More broadly, as cases climb again, the nation’s vaccine program needs to get tougher on holdouts. Early on, a more lenient policy made some sense. Vaccines were hard to get. The quick approval process made some Americans skeptical. A tide of misinformation and conspiracy theories on Facebook and other social media platforms took time to rebut.
But now the vaccine is available, free, almost everywhere. The first shots were administered more than six months ago, and time has proved they are safe and effective. The vast majority of hospitalized COVID patients were unvaccinated. Meanwhile, the shots are nearing final approval from the FDA. Monday’s announcements of a slew of new mandates had the feel of a dam breaking, as Americans lose their patience with people who continue to shun vaccines.
The longer the pandemic goes on, the greater the risk for unvaccinated children, the more likely new variants will emerge, and the more the economic disruptions of the pandemic will continue. Public officials have tried bribing those Americans to do the right thing, offering lottery prizes and freebies. They’ve tried to patiently dispel myths and misinformation. They’ve sent workers door-to-door to convince reluctant residents to get shots. All of that work needs to continue.
But the power to compel vaccinations — by employers and by the government — must also be on the table when those approaches fail. Employers and colleges can require vaccines as a condition of employment or matriculation. And it was a federal case in Cambridge, in 1905, that led the Supreme Court to affirm that governments can order residents to receive vaccines — in that case, for smallpox. The “welfare and safety of an entire population,” the court ruled, can’t be overruled by a minority that chooses to “defy the will of its constituted authorities, acting in good faith for all, under the legislative sanction of the State.”
Requiring people to undergo a medical procedure, even one as minor as a vaccine, is certainly invasive, and it’s appropriate to reserve that governmental power for exceptional times. But if this global pandemic is not an exceptional time, then what exactly would be?
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.