Gov. Baker mandated the flu shot for school kids. Could a COVID-19 vaccine, when available, be required too?

BOSTON — As coronavirus resurges in America, a COVID-19 vaccine might offer the best hope for slowing the pandemic and keeping schools and businesses open. And while there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to vaccines and kids, 25 Investigates wanted to know if a COVID-19 vaccine, like the flu shot, could be mandated for Massachusetts school children.

In August, Governor Baker mandated the influenza vaccine for all children over 6 months of age. Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to do so. The move was aimed at reducing respiratory illnesses, which spike in colder months, and avoid overwhelming hospitals dealing with the pandemic. The public health order lead to criticism and a class action lawsuit from parents who say the mandate is unconstitutional.

But, 25 Investigates found that under the current state of emergency, which was declared in March in response to the pandemic, the governor may “from time to time issue recommendations, directives and orders” that will allow him to “prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to protect the health and welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”

That declaration could allow him to mandate a vaccine.

“Given the authority that we have under state law, we mandated that kids and college students get a vaccination,” Baker said in September about the flu shot mandate.

Under Massachusetts' immunization law, “no child whose parent or guardian states in writing that vaccination or immunization conflicts with his sincere religious beliefs shall be required to present said physician’s certificate in order to be admitted to school,” except if there is “an emergency or epidemic of disease declared by the department of public health.”

Until this year, school children had to be immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles and polio, unless a medical or religious exemption is presented. Exemptions are also permitted for the flu vaccine. A 25 Investigates report from 2019 found religious exemptions outpaced medical ones in Massachusetts schools.

Five companies are currently developing vaccines that are in late stage clinical trials – Moderna, Astra Zeneca , Johnson, Merck and Pfizer.

Dr. David Rosman, a radiologist at Mass General Hospital and a father of two young children, is following news of the trials closely. He’s among the parents who would “absolutely” consider giving the COVID-19 vaccine to his children “so long as it goes through the channels that it’s going through now and is approved by all the appropriate regulatory authorities,” he told 25 Investigates.

“I take heart for the fact that some of these recent vaccine trials have been put on hold because of adverse events, not because I’m hoping for adverse events, but because that means the safety guardrails are working,” Rosman, who is also president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said, adding that vaccines have been around for centuries and help save the lives of two to three million people a year.

But a recent STAT-Harris Poll found only 58% of Americans say they would get the coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

25 Investigates recently visited a local park to gauge residents attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine. It wasn’t hard to find people who say they would not feel comfortable giving it to their children.

“I think it would be too new for me to personally want it or give it to my children,” said North Andover mom, Natalia DaSilva. “I think there needs to be more research and to make something so new mandatory seems oppressive”

Erica Gama, an aunt, said the decision is best left to each individual.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t think they’ve put enough testing into it. I think that should be up to the parents personally,” she said.

Governor Baker has repeatedly said that he consults with health experts before making public health decision. Investigative reporter, Ted Daniel, recently spoke to one of those experts, Dr. Robert Finberg, chair of medicine at UMass Memorial Medical Center and the UMass Medical School. He’s also a member of the Governor’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory group. 25 Investigates wanted to know if a COVID-19 vaccine mandated is even on the table right now.

“The thought is that initially there will only be a certain number of vaccine doses available, so we’re not at the stage of mandating anything at the moment,” said Finberg.

When it does become available, the vaccine will need to be prioritized and should be made available to those most at risk for contracting the virus, like the elderly, individuals with pre-existing conditions and health care workers, according to Finberg. Children, he says, are not high on the list of risk, as they typically only develop mild symptoms from the virus.

“I don’t know, at the end of the day, what we’re going to do for children at the moment. It will depend a little bit on what the data shows,” he said.

We also asked the Governor’s office if a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for children is being considered. His office did not provide a concrete answer, but sent us the state’s Interim Draft COVID-19 Vaccine Plan.

Nowhere in the 47 pages is there a mention of a childhood vaccine mandate.

If the state does not end up deciding for them, it will be up to parents to determine whether to immunize children against COVID-19.

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