Column: Forget ‘personal freedom.’ California’s statewide school vaccine mandate will save lives

A nurse gives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot to Gizelle Carrillo, 14, at Eagle Rock High School.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Look, if you’re not vaccinated, your chances of getting COVID-19 are eight times higher than if you had the shots.

It gets worse: If you’re unvaccinated and test positive, your odds of being hospitalized jump by 13 times.

And you’re 18 to 20 times more likely to die.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, cited those California numbers when I asked what difference vaccination makes — especially for school kids.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has set in motion COVID-19 vaccination mandates for all public and private school children — making California the first state to require inoculation for classroom learning.


“The No. 1 thing we should do to get COVID behind us is to get more people vaccinated,” Ghaly says.

“The mortality on kids is very different than with adults. That said, we’ve still lost more young people to COVID than to any other infectious disease, such as measles or mumps.”

Schoolchildren already must be vaccinated for those ailments — along with polio, chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

So, you’ve got to wonder about the people refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and protesting their kids being inoculated. What are they taking instead of vaccine?

Some anti-vaccination extremists call COVID-19 a “phony” disease. That’s idiotic.

So far, the disease has killed more than 710,000 people nationwide, including nearly 70,000 in California, according to the federal and state governments. In this state, 96 are dying of the disease every day. Across America, it has infected 44 million, including 4.7 million in California.

Those stats are not phony. They’re scary, heartbreaking and — for many — economically disastrous.

The Times reported Saturday that only 60% of Californians are fully vaccinated, based on the paper’s data analysis. In rural counties with low vaccination rates, residents died of COVID-19 during the summer at significantly higher rates than people in better-vaccinated regions such as Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.


Anti-vaxxers — and Republican politicians — complain that people lose their liberty when vaccinations are mandated. Getting shots should be a personal choice, they contend.


Personal freedom doesn’t give someone the right to spread a disease to other people. No one has the personal freedom to drive 100 mph on the freeway or conduct target practice with a rifle in a downtown park. That’s because it endangers others.

“Individual choice is important, but when it affects the lives and health and safety of a community, individual choice does not win out and shouldn’t,” says Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former state Senate leader.

There’s also a high-minded argument about local control. School boards should decide whether their students must be vaccinated, many local officials and parents contend.


We should have one statewide policy on school vaccinations. They ought to be required everywhere. This is a case where one size does fit all. We shouldn’t have one district mandating shots while the neighbor next door allows them to be voluntary.

Then things get confusing and mischievous as parents district-shop.

Steinberg has observed the local control argument from both city and state perspectives.

“Local control is an important value. It’s just not absolute,” the Democrat says. “There is a time when an issue is so compelling to the lives of people that local control must be secondary to protecting the public health and safety.

“If there was ever a case to be made about a single state standard, this is it. This is about life and death.”

Steinberg recently contracted COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. At 61, he was in a vulnerable age group.

“I had a fever and congestion — a little more than flu-like symptoms,” he says. “I was fatigued and lost my sense of taste and smell. It lasted two weeks.

“I’m convinced if I’d not received my vaccination, I would have wound up hospitalized. It was the difference between moderate symptoms like I had and serious illness and possibly death.”

Newsom is on the right track with his vaccination mandates for students and teachers. Some think he’s moving too slowly. But it’s about as fast as a governor can move given political practicalities and legal speed limits.

He understandably wants to wait for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve vaccines for school-age kids before requiring the shots.

The plan is to begin implementing the statewide mandate in the school term following FDA approval. That could be in January or next July. Middle and high schools would be first, followed by kindergarten and elementary grades.

But there’ll be a sizable loophole in the mandate unless the Legislature passes a law to remove an oft-abused exemption for “personal beliefs.” The Legislature did that for other childhood vaccines in 2015. But a governor can’t do it on his own.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician who has sponsored laws tightening student vaccination requirements, says he may introduce a bill to eliminate the personal belief exemption for COVID-19 shots when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Good idea.

There’d still be a medical exemption.

Parents could refuse to have their children vaccinated. But the kids would have to enroll in online classes, join an independent study program or be home-schooled.

“If you don’t want to vaccinate your child, you don’t have to,” Pan says. “But there are consequences. They’re not to punish but to protect other children who deserve to be safe.”

Another consequence could be that the unvaccinated kid acquires a mild case of COVID-19 and foists it on a vulnerable grandparent. Then the parents should be grounded.