On Friday, just after Governor Greg Abbott declared a statewide emergency in response to the coronavirus, Sarah posted a worried plea on a local anti-vaccine Facebook group. She worried that the declaration gives the government the right to “force vaccinations” on unwilling Texans.
“If they fast-track some vaccine for coronavirus, how are all of us going to defend ourselves?” she asked. “I’ll let them vaccinate my daughter over my dead body.”
Other members of the group, Tarrant County Crunchy Mamas, chimed in.
“Hide in the floors like they hid the Jews from the Nazis,” one suggested. “Hide them in our gun safe (yes, it’s a big safe and yes, we love our guns),” said another.
Though a COVID-19 vaccine is likely still more than a year away, according to experts, concerns over mandatory vaccinations have spread throughout the anti-vaxxer community in Texas, which is one of the largest in the nation. In recent years, prominent voices in the anti-vaxxer movement have settled in and around Austin, and a vocal Facebook group formed a political action committee, Texans for Vaccine Choice. This school year, nearly 73,000, or 1.35 percent, of Texas students opted out of getting at least one required vaccine for nonmedical reasons, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number does not include home schooled children.
The anti-vaccine community, at large, believes that vaccines are a tool of government control that make big pharmaceutical companies rich and have side effects that can cause lasting damage. Sarah, a Benbrook mom who asked that her last name be omitted over fears her family will be targeted by people who support vaccines, said she’s more scared that she’ll be forced to vaccinate her two-year-old daughter than she is of the virus itself.
“For a vast majority of the population, this is a few days of a high fever and a week of a lingering cough,” she said. “Once you give up rights to your body, the government owns you.”
In Texas, students are required to get a number of immunizations to attend school. But in 2003, the Legislature passed a law allowing kids to claim an exemption for “reasons of conscience, including religious belief,” provided parents sign an affidavit.
Allison Winnike, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a Texas-based nonprofit aimed at eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases, said the state has the authority to make a prospective coronavirus vaccine mandatory, meaning people that don’t get it will be penalized, but notably not physically forced to get it.
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There are three levels of vaccine interventions, Winnike said. The first is voluntary, which includes vaccines like the flu and HPV that are recommended but not required. The second is mandatory, for which penalties like fines or barring children from school can be applied. These include the measles, polio, and hepatitis A and B vaccines that kids have to get to attend school.
The last is compulsory, which is the category anti-vaxxers fear most. Such vaccinations occur when an infected person defies voluntary and mandatory interventions and continues to spread disease around the community. A judge can decide if the person should be taken into custody and forcibly vaccinated. Winnike said this occurs most often with tuberculosis patients, and that there’s no precedent for compulsory vaccinations on a widespread level.
Winnike believes that when a COVID-19 vaccine is eventually approved, it will likely fall into the voluntary category.
“Frankly, with COVID-19, the issue is more going to be trying to prioritize who gets to get the vaccine once it’s available because there won’t be enough initially to cover everyone,” she said.
Unfortunately, vaccines only work if enough people get them to create what’s called herd immunity, which slows rapidly spreading diseases and protects the small number of people who are prevented from getting vaccines for medical reasons. When people opt out of vaccination, the community’s collective immunity is weakened.
“This last year when we saw so many measles outbreaks, they were in places where their measles vaccine rates have been declining, and that’s no coincidence,” said Winnike, referring to 22 cases in Texas last year. “It’s hurting all the rest of Texans because now we’re losing our herd immunity status.”
But for anti-vaxxers, it’s a question of individual liberty.
“It’s our human right to be able to decide what is put into our bodies,” said Jessica Davis, a mom of five in East Texas. “I will not sacrifice my family or my body so others can feel ‘safe’ from a virus that is affecting so few people.”
Winnike said the fear that men in masks will start knocking on doors and forcing people to get vaccinated is “an invention” of the anti-vaxxer movement. “It’s part of their fear mongering,” she said. “That’s not how we do public health in the United States.”
Texans for Vaccine Choice, the PAC, posted on Facebook Saturday that they’re not against medical advancements, “as long as they are never, ever at the expense of informed consent, medical privacy, and vaccine choice.”
Reached for comment, the PAC wrote, “It is also our position that the fast-track designation of the vaccine which began human trials today is cause for concern, as essential steps in the safety assessment process will not be undertaken before administering the vaccine to healthy individuals.”
Though several vaccines will be entering the clinical trial phase in the next few months, it will still be at least a year before one is approved for widespread use, according to Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and codirector of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.
Hotez said this is because vaccines have to be rigorously tested to ensure that they’re safe and effective.
“Despite what the anti-vaxxers claim, that vaccines are not adequately tested for safety, in fact, there’s no pharmaceutical that’s tested more for safety than vaccines,” Hotez said.
Still, many remain unconvinced.
Jacqueline Belowsky, 23, said she’s not concerned about the coronavirus and would treat it like she does any other illness, “naturally and not in a panic.”
Her four children, who are mostly unvaccinated, got the flu in December and she said she helped them get over it in three days.
“I will never accept any vaccine no matter how scary the government makes the situation seem,” Belowsky said. “I would refuse no matter what.”