California just paused its plans for a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate. There wasn't an ounce of scientific evidence to support this proposal and enough opposition to halt the legislation, at least until after the upcoming elections. There's an important lesson here for policymakers.
I've lived in California my whole life. It's a beautiful part of the world but a horribly run state. We have too little water, too many wildfires, and, as the last 18 months have demonstrated, executed an atrocious pandemic response.
Our governor Gavin Newsom, now facing a recall election, seeded doubt about the COVID vaccines while Donald Trump was in office and flouted his own stay-at-home orders. His wineries were allowed to remain open while restaurants in other counties were forced to close. The state's pandemic restrictions on churches were so Draconian that the Supreme Court stepped in and forced California to roll them back.
But it appears the leadership in Sacramento may finally be realizing that voters will only tolerate so much. In less than a week, the state legislature proposed a statewide vaccine mandate and then unceremoniously killed the proposal. “After ceding power to Gov. Gavin Newsom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” The Los Angeles Times reported on August 26,
state lawmakers are now considering one of the most politically challenging government mandates yet: requiring Californians to show proof of vaccination to enter many indoor business establishments and forcing workers to get vaccinated or regularly tested.
But things had changed dramatically by August 31, according to the paper:
Democratic lawmakers have dropped a controversial proposal to mandate vaccines in the state, a move that would have been challenging to pass in the final weeks of the legislative session and was already providing fodder for the upcoming recall election.
Policymakers around the country should learn two lessons from this development. First, public health rules need to be based on sound evidence, which, as we'll see, this proposed mandate was not. Second, when policymakers fail to "follow the science," they cause severe unintended consequences.
Vaccine coverage in California
We mandate certain behaviors when they provide a social benefit, and the public refuses to engage in them. But this dynamic has not affected California's vaccine rollout. Excluding children under 12, who can't yet be immunized, just under 70 percent of the state's population is fully vaccinated, according to the California Department of Public Health. More than 70 percent of residents over 65 years old, those most vulnerable to severe infection and death, have also gotten both jabs of an mRNA shot or the single-dose J&J vaccine.
The numbers of new cases and deaths have absolutely plummeted since the vaccines were introduced in December. Hospitalizations have rebounded post-Delta, but they are still far less than half of their January 12 peak of 22,550, sitting for now at 8,608. Additionally, as my colleague Dr. Chuck Dinerstein pointed out this week, no vaccinated Californians were hospitalized as of late July. If you're a visual learner like me, here are two graphs that helpfully sum up the situation:
When we factor in infection-induced immunity, which is probably as protective as vaccination, even a California politician could understand why SARS-COV-2 is struggling to find new hosts in the Golden State. All these data confirm that a vaccine mandate was utterly unnecessary.
Bad policy has consequences
Here's the other side of the equation. Voters don't sit idly when public policy is divorced from the facts. California's leadership is watching this play out in real-time. Rather than comply with increasingly ridiculous and inconsistently enforced public health rules, Californians are packing up their homes and leaving the state in unprecedented numbers. Our population has dropped by more than 182,000 people over last year, the first annual loss since we became a state in 1850.
The Newsom administration has explicitly blamed the decline on the pandemic. Of course, COVID-19 is everywhere; people are actually fleeing the state's policies. A vaccine mandate would have been another authoritarian measure in a long line of decrees that are clearly unpopular.
Even residents who haven't left California have nonetheless expressed their disinterest in mandates. Both churches and physicians around the state are handing out vaccine exemptions to those who wouldn't have complied with this mandate. Had they been unable to get wavers, my gut says that many Californians still wouldn't have complied with this policy.
A dozen studies have shown that mandating shots elicits intense pushback. We also have some recent real-world data showing the same result. Moscow rescinded its mandate following a "devastating impact" on the city's restaurant industry. Even when people can't get exemptions, they tend to forgo access to the amenities tied to vaccine passports.
At the risk of sounding condescending to my pro-mandate friends, do you see a pattern here? The public isn't stupid. If we treat people like inferiors to be coerced, they push back. We've seen this in notoriously stubborn states like Texas and Florida, but we've also seen it at anti-lockdown protests in countries around the world.
Think whatever you like about this state of affairs. Call the unvaccinated selfish; call them misinformed rubes; cite Jacobson v. Massachusetts until you're blue in the face. None of it matters because people are fed up with their leaders. I don't blame them.