“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