How do you end a pandemic?

The answer has nothing to do with acceptable case numbers or hospitalization rates. After eighteen months of life under COVID-19, gaining vast insight into pandemics in the modern era, and adjusting to a vastly different lifestyle from that which we knew before the pandemic, the world still labors every day under the prospect of life with COVID in perpetuity. With this in mind, we as a society have continuously asked this question curiously, impatiently and despairingly: How do you end a pandemic?

The answer is one that I had hoped would be unnecessary, but now appears to be the only way toward what all of us on campus would call “normal.” I am writing, of course, about a vaccine mandate for all members of the Fairfield community.

Fairfield is certainly not alone in its examination of this contentious issue. New York City recently implemented a mandate for school faculty without a testing exception and, certain legal challenges notwithstanding, it is expected to be upheld. If a city of more than eight million people can handle such a logistical challenge, then a similar mandate by the University should be comparatively easy to enforce. However, despite an impressive community vaccination rate that exceeds 90 percent, vaccine holdouts remain. Ideally these members of the community would abstain from the vaccine entirely out of an abundance of caution, but there are undoubtedly also a select few that refuse to accept it for reasons that are completely unfounded.

Opponents of vaccine mandates across the nation argue against the fact that the decision to vaccinate, which has traditionally been granted to individuals, is being increasingly overseen by governments and other influential organizations. This resistance is somewhat understandable—few people prize individual freedoms to the extent that Americans do. Still others balk at the nature of widespread mandates because they are unprecedented. This argument is grounded in fact to a degree, but not for the reason that anti-mandate activists might believe.

For guidance on this issue, I encourage the Fairfield community and Americans in general to examine the epidemics of Poliomyelitis that ravaged the nation in the 1940s and ‘50s. This horrifying disease indiscriminately struck its victims, many of them children, with a degree of paralysis that utterly damaged, if not destroyed, their lives. Polio was the undisputed scourge of post-World War II American youth. Yet when Jonas Salk announced in 1955 that he had developed a safe, effective vaccine to combat Polio, everything changed. Suddenly, we had a weapon to strike back at the disease, and Americans took to this good news with such urgency that Polio, the shadow that hung over vulnerable young Americans for so long, was eliminated in the United States in just a few short years. This effort was nothing short of a triumph for both the public health system and the American spirit.

For our parents and their parents before them, receiving vaccinations for life-altering diseases was a no-brainer. Believe it or not, many of our parents still bear the tell-tale circular scar of the smallpox vaccine on their arms. There was never any question of whether such vaccines were safe or if healthcare workers were trustworthy; for all intents and purposes, vaccination was a ubiquitous part of life that made everyone safer. 

A vaccine mandate would have been unheard of in the twentieth century not because of its potential infringement on individual rights, but because one would have been unnecessary. A greater sense of duty, coupled with a desire for safety from endemic disease, trumped petty selfishness, and our lives are so much the better for it. Unfortunately, the world of 2021 is a far cry from the world of the twentieth century.

Gone is the unshakeable trust of the public in important medical figures. The scathing criticism reserved for Dr. Anthony Fauci is unimaginable to those who observed the quiet, determined heroism of those like Salk. Gone too is trust in vaccines, miraculous inventions that have ensured the health of billions. In many ways, our generation has become the first victims of vaccine skepticism. 

We were the first to come of age after the fateful 1998 paper published in the Lancet that claimed to support a link between vaccines and autism (a paper that has since been thoroughly discredited). Vaccine hesitancy has skyrocketed in recent years, and the detriments are now more tangible than ever. Because these are not challenges that generations before us faced, we must devise new ways to solve them.

All of this is not to say that a vaccine mandate for the campus is a decision that should be made lightly; frankly, the implications of such a decision still make me somewhat uneasy. Furthermore, the Fairfield community must still abide by the COVID restrictions set by the town, whose vaccination rate continues to lag behind that of the university. Without assurances from the town of Fairfield that a fully vaccinated campus would be able to return to business as usual (or something very closely resembling it), I believe that a vaccine mandate remains a moot point. 

However, if the school, as a community unto itself, should receive some sort of exemption from the town’s requirements, then it would be in the best interest of the university that a vaccine mandate be implemented.

With each passing day, the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the dangers of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism, became ever clearer. Soon enough, vaccine hesitancy will be a matter of intransigence rather than caution. Fairfield University can, for the first time in more than a year, bring a truly normal college experience back to the students and faculty who have sorely missed it. If we as a community would like to answer that persistent question of ending this pandemic, then a vaccine mandate can and must be the solution.

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