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‘Twindemic’ test: Massachusetts, many colleges mandate winter flu shots

“This is a brave new experiment by the state of Massachusetts,” said Lawrence Gostin, who heads a university-based center on health law that serves as an official collaborating institute with the World Health Organization. “If it turns out to be a wholesale success, that should influence other states to go a similar route, not just with flu but with other vaccines. But if it causes a backlash and only marginal benefit, states might be hesitant to adopt that model in the future.”

In New Jersey, Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill in the state Legislature late last month that would mandate flu shots for kids in preschool through college. Vermont public health officials also have been considering a vaccine order of their own.

Early evidence suggests the pandemic is widening a nationwide vaccination gap. Preliminary data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show vaccination rates for typically given shots dropped by 22 percent this spring compared to last year, among young children enrolled in Medicaid and the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Fewer than 50 percent of adults opt to get vaccinated against the flu in a typical season, a rate CDC Director Robert Redfield hopes to elevate to 65 percent this season.

While states have “the absolute right” under the Constitution to require vaccinations, Gostin said, the stakes are still high for officials who want to expand flu immunity without aggravating anti-vaccine tensions.

“There are a lot of my colleagues, and me included, that worry there’s such large numbers of people in the United States that are vaccine-hesitant or even outright anti-vaxxers, that a mandate might create a vicious backlash not only against influenza vaccines but all vaccines. So, you have to tread very carefully,” said Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

Before Massachusetts’ move, Gostin found that no state required influenza vaccinations for adults or K-12 students. Only a handful of states require flu shots for kids enrolled in childcare or preschool, according to the Immunization Action Coalition, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC recommend the vaccine for children older than 6 months.

Supply isn’t the issue. Flu vaccines are inexpensive, easy to find and often effective. But experts say time is running short before the annual flu season accelerates in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Many places have already gotten their supply of vaccines. They just need people to take it,” said Tina Tan, a Chicago pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine. “This month is going to be the critical month to try and implement these types of mandates and get people vaccinated.”

Tan said flu shot requirements for school kids did not catch on before now for two main reasons: Doses are often unavailable when students start classes each school year, plus there are misconceptions that the flu shot is unsafe.

In Massachusetts, the governor has defended the flu shot mandate but acknowledged “some people are troubled” by a sweeping requirement that follows

Colleges must do more to stop coronavirus spread, CDC says

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WASHINGTON — The coronavirus is spreading among young people on college campuses, a trend that college administrators and the public health officials working with them must do more to prevent. Those are the conclusions of two studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday. 

One of those studies looked at national trends, while the other examined a series of recent coronavirus outbreaks at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill. The conclusions were the same: Close living conditions, a renewal of social gatherings and disregard for mask wearing can result in viral spread. And since some 33 percent of college students live with their parents — and virtually all somehow interact with older members of their communities — that spread can afflict more vulnerable people.

a man and a woman standing on a sidewalk: Safety ambassadors Paul Ensslin, left, and Matthew Porter, right, assist a UNC-Chapel Hill student into class on Aug. 10. (Ted Richardson/Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Safety ambassadors Paul Ensslin, left, and Matthew Porter, right, assist a UNC-Chapel Hill student into class on Aug. 10. (Ted Richardson/Washington Post via Getty Images)

“To prevent cases on campuses and broader spread within communities,” the CDC researchers wrote, “it is critically important for students, faculty, and staff members at colleges and universities to remain vigilant and take steps to reduce the risk for SARS-CoV-2 transmission in these settings.”

Researchers recommended limits on social gatherings, mask-wearing requirements and living arrangements that do not crowd students into dormitories. At the same time, they acknowledged that “institutes of higher education present a unique set of challenges because of the presence of congregate living settings and difficulty limiting socialization and group gatherings.”

Some colleges have moved to expel or otherwise punish students who break rules by holding parties. That has resulted in backlash among some elected officials, particularly those close to President Trump. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has gone as far as to propose a “bill of rights for students” that would protect them from repercussions for partying in the midst of the pandemic. 

“That’s what college kids do, and they’re at low risk,” DeSantis explained. While that is accurate in the narrowest sense, someone who is at a low risk for serious health complications can easily transmit the virus to a person at higher risk, such as an elderly parent or grandparent, or a peer who has a disorder that makes them more susceptible to the virus.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 18 coronavirus clusters — that is, groups of five or more related cases — appeared within days of students returning to campus on Aug. 3. In-person classes began on Aug. 10 but were moved online the following week as case counts increased. By Aug. 25, there were 670 coronavirus cases on campus. Encouragingly, none of them resulted in either hospitalization or death.

Of the 18 clusters, eight could be traced back to dormitories, while another five were centered on the school’s robust fraternity and sorority system. Four of the outbreaks affected athletic teams. 

Nationally, cases among people between the ages of 18