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Can front-line workers skeptical of COVID-19 vaccine be forced to get it?

Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Pat Withrow, the San Joaquin County sheriff, survived a bout with COVID-19 last summer. Dozens of inmates and staff at the county jail also have tested positive.

So it was with a good deal of alarm that Withrow reported last week that many of his deputies are reluctant to take the new coronavirus vaccines. The same is true, he said, for a shocking number of health care workers in the region.

"If you want to help small businesses in our area, then get vaccinated — just go out and get vaccinated," he told the Board of Supervisors. "That's when our businesses will be able to open. That's when our schools will be able to open — when we reach that critical mass of enough people having been vaccinated."

Withrow urged the county to embark on an educational campaign to encourage people to get their shots. For now, across the state, that appears to be about as far any government official is willing to take it, despite having legal authority to mandate workers to get vaccines in order to get paid.

The same is true in Sacramento, El Dorado and other neighboring counties. The city of Sacramento also is adopting a voluntary policy.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom — whose administration is struggling to enforce face mask orders and other policies — isn't planning to require the hundreds of thousands of state workers to get vaccinated, according to a spokeswoman for his office. Newsom last week asked the Legislature to spend $372 million to improve vaccine distribution, including a "public awareness campaign to increase vaccine adoption," according to his budget proposal.

 

The same voluntary policies pervade the private sector, too — even in front-line industries facing down massive outbreaks. Hospitals throughout California are making the shots voluntary for their doctors, nurses and other employees.

But will vaccines remain voluntary forever? As the pandemic worsens and California's COVID-19 death toll surges past 29,000, experts believe that at some point, some government and private employers will have to make the vaccines mandatory for workers as supplies become more readily available.

"If we don't use the best weapon we've got, we're going to be isolating, masking and testing for years," said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine. "Plus, we're still going to have the economy damaged and unable to recover, and we're still going to be arguing about opening schools forever."

Instituting a mandatory vaccine policy could generate considerable legal and ethical problems, despite experts like Caplan saying the vaccines are safe and nearly every eligible person needs to be vaccinated for American life to return to normal.

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