The news Friday that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective in children raises hopes that by Christmas, kids as young as 5 could be receiving their shots and the pandemic could be another big step closer to the end. Unfortunately, it also sets the stage for even more emotional and divisive battles ahead over whether to make those shots mandatory for children.
Much depends on the course of the pandemic as well as the regulatory process. But if and when federal regulators fully approve COVID shots for children, it would make sense to add them to the list of mandatory vaccinations children must receive to attend school safely.
Some jurisdictions already have required shots for teens who are eligible for the Pfizer jab. Los Angeles mandates the vaccination, and the rest of California is moving in that direction too. In New York City, Democratic candidate and likely next mayor Eric Adams wants to institute a vaccine mandate for students there.
As loud as the clamor over mandates for adults has been, the uproar over kids’ mandates is likely to be deafening. Already, the California policy triggered statewide protests last Monday. Many of the objections are ill-informed. It’s true, for instance, that kids rarely die or suffer serious impacts from COVID, but protecting their own health is only part of the reason to vaccinate them; they can still spread the disease to others, including more vulnerable teachers and staff. Nor is a requirement an unconstitutional infringement on personal liberty; vaccine requirements are clearly legal under century-old Supreme Court precedent. In fact, schools across the country, including in Massachusetts, already require several vaccinations for kids to enroll in school.
Still, the widespread nature of anti-vax sentiment, however unfounded, does raise one legitimate concern about school mandates: If it’s anti-vax parents who are preventing their kids from getting a shot, why should it be their children who suffer by being excluded from school?
In California, the state has said it will phase in the requirement only as the vaccines receive full FDA approval. Right now the Pfizer vaccine is fully approved only for adults; teens are eligible under a special emergency approval. Waiting for full approval means the mandate will not take effect immediately, and schools will have some time to prepare and address any reasonable concerns parents may have. Although it will mean some delay, waiting to enforce a school vaccine mandate until full approval is reasonable.
In the meantime, one way to protect at least one subset of students who could be harmed by the mandate would be to lower the age of consent for receiving shots. Clearly, first-graders should not be making their own medical decisions. But someone who is 16 is mature enough to decide whether to undergo a minor procedure like a COVID-19 vaccine. They may well reach a different conclusion than their parents about whether it’s worth being excluded from school over a vaccine. Some jurisdictions have passed, or are considering, lowering their medical age-of-consent laws to cover COVID vaccines. Another approach would be to switch from an opt-in to opt-out model, to make it harder — but not impossible — for parents to block their children from getting vaccinated.
Although that discussion may seem premature, this is when school districts and states need to be laying the groundwork for school vaccine mandates. Pfizer’s study found that its vaccine was safe and 91 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infections in 5-to-11-year-olds. Emergency approval could come as soon as next month, and there are already kid-sized doses sitting on shelves waiting for the green light from regulators for immediate shipment. Full approval might come next year. Sooner than most Americans might realize, their kids will be eligible for the shots that could help end the pandemic — and for all the controversy that comes along with them.
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