Stopping the Delta variant: mandates and institutions

With 'madness afoot' in relation to vaccine resistance, the government must make an intervention across all sectors.



August 6, 2021 - 1:08 PM

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

“There is a madness afoot here, and only government can make a difference,” said James Sanders, a New York state senator whose Queens district had one of the highest rates of death from COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic and now has one of the highest rates of unvaccinated people in the city.

Madness afoot, indeed. And our governmental, non-profit, and private sectors must all respond.

Whether it’s KU, McDonald’s, school districts or Via Christi, our largest and most powerful institutions, public and private, simply must mandate that their staff and students get vaccinated as a condition of employment or educational status. No ifs, ands, or buts.

As the Delta variant wreaks havoc, unnecessarily, with our lives, it is past time for Kansas institutions to require vaccinations. Across the country, cities, universities, and large employers have done this. Now it’s time for Kansas to follow suit, even if that means challenging current legal restrictions on vaccine requirements.

In April, the Legislature inserted a budget proviso prohibiting state entities from requiring proof of vaccination. But that was then, and this is now. Indeed, a policy that seemed reasonable in the spring is now clearly counterproductive.

We know exactly what we need to do to stop the Delta variant surge; we need to vaccinate the large numbers of Kansans who have not yet stepped up. We have a remarkable, near-miraculous remedy, and we have institutions that can effectively enforce a vaccination requirement. Across the country universities, large employers, and health care systems have embraced mandates, with an immediate increase in vaccination levels.

How to accomplish this in Kansas? For private firms, large and small, it’s simple: require vaccinations as a condition of employment, with appropriate religious and health exceptions. Many restaurants, bars, and gyms could go further, requiring proof of vaccination for service. Many patrons would rejoice.

Nonprofits could do the same. Hospitals, libraries, recreation centers could require vaccinations for staff at a minimum, but in many instances, clients could be included.

For Kansas, governmental requirements might seem out of reach, given the April budget provision and the Legislature’s limitations on the governor’s power. But a recent court decision has apparently provided the governor with a much fuller range of power, and a Legislative Coordinating Council decision (or a one-day special session) could reverse the limit on mandates.

Every member of the Board of Regents and all the university and community college leaders should immediately lobby the Legislature to change its policy, if only for six months or a year. Why should we fight the Covid variant with bringing the full weight of institutions to bear?

More than two dozen higher education organizations have called on states to allow universities to mandate vaccinations, and in a landmark Indiana University case, an appellate  court, including two Trump appointees, upheld the university’s right to do this, citing a 1905 Supreme Court decision.

To be a bit more palatable, mandates could include exceptions for those tested twice a week and wearing masks. But most of the unvaccinated would choose to get a jab.

We have tried pleas to reason, we have used incentives, we have appealed to a sense of community. Now we must push the unvaccinated hard to do the right thing.  Vaccine mandates have been in place more than a century. Like requiring the use of seatbelts, they are a tool in societal efforts to rein in a widespread problem.

For the sake of our fellow Kansans, we should all work to make vaccination mandates happen. Today.

Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.