California Governor Gavin Newsom wants to mandate that public school students get their COVID shots. He's also fighting to exempt the state's correctional officers from a vaccine requirement. Let's examine the consequences of hypocrisy.
Protests erupted at California's state capitol earlier this week in the wake of Governor Gavin Newsom's proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public school students. Carrying signs with slogans like, “I won't co-parent with the government,” 1,000 parents and their children chanted “Our body, our choice” just outside Newsom's office.
When asked about the protests in Sacramento, Newsom's office replied that "Vaccines are how we end this pandemic." That's a message I wholeheartedly endorse; the approved COVID vaccines are very effective, even post-delta. But there's one aspect of the governor's stance on vaccination that doesn't square with his office's statement:
What mandate is Newsom trying to block, and why? According to SF Gate:
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who previously said that Democratic politicians should 'lean into' COVID-19 policies such as vaccine mandates and issued the nation's first such mandate for schoolchildren, is trying to get the federal courts to halt a vaccine mandate for prison guards.
Newsom is fighting the order alongside the state's prison guards' union, which gave more than a million dollars to his campaign in the recent recall election, SF Gate also reported.
Newsom is certainly a hypocrite, but we need to avoid the partisan temptation to complain about public figures we dislike and call it a day. The problem isn't just the governor's double standard, since most politicians have at least one. The real issue is that Newsom is giving every vaccine skeptic a perfect excuse by helping his political allies skirt the mandate.
Facts on the ground
As far as mandates go, Newsom's proposal isn't uniquely objectionable. The rule would require all elementary through high school students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once the FDA approves the shots for their age groups. There will be medical and personal belief exemptions, though the state hasn't outlined how those will be applied. Unvaccinated students who don't qualify for an exemption would be forced into an independent study program.
But the situation becomes much more objectionable when we factor in Newsom's political dealings with the union. If there's a good case for vaccinating elementary school-age children, who face a very low risk of severe disease and death, there's a comparatively rock-solid case for vaccinating corrections officers. The latter demographic is, of course, much older and more prone to medical conditions that increase the risk of contracting a potentially deadly case of COVID-19.
Moreover, California corrections officers, only 42 percent of whom are fully vaccinated, spend their days around inmates who obviously can't go anywhere. This should be a problem for Newsom and other mandate advocates because it's quite likely that unvaccinated correctional officers have brought SARS-COV-2 to work with them on at least one occasion. My colleague Dr. Chuck Dinerstein has made that case in Prison Breakout ... Of The Delta Variant.
A federal court seems to agree with this assessment, ruling on 8th Amendment grounds three weeks ago that state corrections officers had to be vaccinated. Allowing them to skip their COVID shots would constitute cruel and unusual punishment for the inmates incarcerated in California's prisons, the court wrote:
The question of mandatory vaccines is complex. In this case, however, the relevant facts are undisputed. No one challenges the serious risks that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated persons. No one disputes that it is difficult to control the virus once it has been introduced into a prison setting. No one contests that staff are the primary vector for introduction. And no one argues that testing, even if done on a daily basis, is an adequate proxy for vaccination to reduce the risk of introduction.
Mandates for thee, but not my donors
Governor Newsom's defense in the suit is surprising (to say the least) given his otherwise stringent pandemic response. Alongside the union, California's chief executive pointed to “the minority of incarcerated persons who have not yet accepted the vaccine,” the court noted (p 2). The defendants also argued, “that the best way to protect such individuals is for them to become vaccinated.” [emphasis added]. They also quoted California Department of Public Health official Dr. James Watt, who argued that the high vaccination rate among the incarcerated population “will significantly mitigate the spread of the virus (p 12).
I'm no lawyer and can't speak to the validity of these arguments in a legal sense. But logically speaking, Newsom's claim is indefensible. In order to excuse corrections officers from vaccination, the governor has claimed that everybody around them has the right to get vaccinated. It's literally the same assertion opponents of the governor's school mandate have made: my body, my choice.
There's another flaw in Newsom's case. If high vaccine uptake without mandates is enough to stop COVID transmission in prisons, then, logically, California's widespread vaccine coverage should also eliminate the need for mandates anywhere else in the state. More than 60 percent of Californians are fully vaccinated, while 73 percent have received their first dose. The vaccines' impact is confirmed by the fact that California's average positive test rate has been declining for months; new cases and deaths have also fallen substantially since January:
Consider all this information from the perspective of a vaccine-hesitant parent. Their governor has declared vaccination as the way out of the COVID pandemic. Yet, he wants to exempt politically connected union members from a mandate that will apply to school children who face a much lower disease risk. This same politician raised doubts last year about the shots he now wants to require; he also flouted his own masking and social distancing guidelines before immunization was an option.
It's not difficult to see why so many people refuse to be lectured about vaccines by someone with that track record. If we want the general public to accept COVID shots, we need leaders who do so consistently as well.