In early August, Kaiser Permanente announced it would require all employees to be vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19, or request a medical or religious exemption. The results: Our employee vaccination rate increased from 78% at the time of the announcement to more than 92% by early October.
This is a remarkable and important achievement. Many other employers and leading organizations are following the same path to bring an end to the pandemic that has caused massive social and economic disruption, and caused millions of deaths around the world. At the same time, this vaccination mandate has not been without controversy, as employees without a valid reason for exemption face losing their job for their hesitancy to be vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy has a long history. In Victorian-era England, anti-vaccination activists resisted compulsory smallpox vaccines based on religious and personal beliefs, lack of scientific knowledge on the cause of disease, and inaccurate theories of public health. In the years since then, the science of infectious disease has become clear, and the importance of vaccination for public health has become undeniable. Diseases that caused enormous suffering and death are now eradicated or under control, and vaccines keep other diseases at bay that would run rampant through populations without the major public health efforts that every society deploys to protect its people.
Despite all of this, vaccine hesitancy persists, fueled in large part by misinformation. In recent years, widely disseminated fraudulent research created concern that common childhood vaccines were causing autism. Pseudoscientific theories unsupported by research claiming that vaccines carry risks abound. This misinformation is transmitted through social media channels that systematically deliver information that appeals to users — reinforcing beliefs through confirmation bias.
Many people who don’t want to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are concerned the vaccines were created and authorized too fast, without careful review. In reality, the underlying science that led to our current crop of vaccines was under development for years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, while vaccine authorization was fast-tracked due to our nation’s urgent need, all authorized vaccines went through appropriate clinical trials.
Vaccinating as many people as possible will help to slow the spread of the coronavirus delta variant, which is more than twice as transmissible as the original strain of the virus, and will deter the emergence of even more dangerous future variants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that unvaccinated people are nearly 5 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than people who are vaccinated.
The enormous uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines in the past 9 months has presented undeniable proof that the vaccines work; they are safe; and they benefit society at large by reducing transmission and protecting against hospitalization, severe disease, and death. Vaccination is the best hope we have of putting the pandemic behind us.
Everyone has a fundamental right to be protected from the spread of disease. People should not claim the right to potentially inflict harm on others by refusing to take a safe and effective vaccine. In a time of crisis, cooperation is essential. Refusal to reasonably cooperate is inconsistent with living in a civil society.
The solution to our crisis is at hand. Only fear, cynicism, and falsehoods are holding us back. With government, business, and public health leaders working together, we can begin to bring an end to this pandemic.