Editorial: It’s time to get tough on COVID vaccine evaders

A person is vaccinated
Daryl Black receives a shot at a mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic hosted by Mothers In Action in collaboration with L.A. County Department of Public Health on July 16.
(Los Angeles Times)

Last summer, when a new, deadly wave of COVID-19 infections gripped the nation, the only solace during that dark time was that a vaccine seemed possible, if not probable, within the year. It was the light in the proverbial tunnel, as distant and weak as it may have appeared at the moment.

We should have reached the end of the tunnel by now, thanks to amazing feats of science and government that developed and mass produced several COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Yet it’s still agonizingly far away because of falling demand for the abundant and free shots, despite pleas and cash giveaways to nudge vaccine holdouts. Efforts to educate skeptics about the undeniable benefits of the vaccines must continue, and the social media platforms need to do a better job at cracking down on deliberate misinformation that serves solely to stir up confusion and doubt about the vaccines — or worse.

But meanwhile, the highly contagious Delta variant is driving a scary resurgence of COVID-19 infections across the nation. Cases have risen so quickly in Los Angeles County over the last week that the public health department reinstated the indoor mask mandate for everyone regardless of vaccination status.


Making matters worse are the Republican commentators, activists and lawmakers who have taken an antagonistic position on vaccines rather than celebrating them as the triumph of the one pandemic initiative for which the former president deserves legitimate bragging rights.

At this point, it’s clear that carrots aren’t enough to compel the 41% of Americans who have yet to get a single shot. It’s time to break out the sticks.

Metaphorically speaking, of course. We don’t support corporal punishment, even for those who foolishly put the lives of others at risk by going maskless and unvaccinated into public places. Nor are universal government vaccine mandates the way to go. People should have a right to decide what goes into their bodies, including lifesaving medication and vaccines.

But what people should not have the right to do is endanger the health of other people as they exercise their personal freedom. And that’s the line that should guide government officials and private employers to seek tougher restrictions on vaccine foot-draggers. If someone rejects inoculation for reasons other than medical, they should not be allowed to fully participate in society until this current public emergency is over.

If that sounds harsh, consider the stakes. More than 600,000 Americans have already died of COVID-19, and the latest variant is so contagious that it can be transmitted in outdoor settings and is even sickening vaccinated people (though most of them not seriously).

Happily, momentum toward a crackdown has been growing. Last week, the University of California announced that all of its campuses would require students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated to fully participate in fall term classes and activities, joining about 580 other higher educational institutions with similar rules. This is similar to the long-standing policy of public grade schools to require a regular course of childhood vaccines for attendance, except for those with a valid medical reason or, in some states, religious opposition.

And despite having an enviable high vaccination rate, San Francisco officials are also getting tough, ordering the city’s workforce to get inoculated as soon as the Food and Drug Administration gives formal approval to the vaccines, which is expected within the next two months, and requiring that workers in all high-risk settings, such as hospital and nursing residential facilities, be vaccinated by Sept. 15.

We hope officials in Los Angeles and other urban areas, as well as private businesses and employers, are considering similar requirements or at least making sure that those who aren’t vaccinated are tested daily and restricted to less-dangerous activities.

Tougher restrictions will inevitably lead to cries that constitutionally guaranteed rights are being violated, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that private businesses and employers are within their rights to mandate vaccines. And there is also solid legal precedent for sweeping government vaccine mandates. In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that smallpox mandates issued by Boston and Cambridge during a 1901 outbreak were a reasonable infringement on personal freedom.

But if prudent action is taken now, then there would be no need to even contemplate such draconian action. It’s time to get tough on COVID-19 vaccine evaders.