School and health officials have more than enough to handle with the reopening of schools than to have to deal with yet another state mandate in the middle of the current chaos.
So while it might be a good idea down the road to consider mandating that students get flu shots before attending school, now is not the time to introduce this potentially cumbersome, costly and controversial element into the mix.
Some officials in state government, including some state lawmakers, are considering adding flu shots to the required list of vaccinations required for attendance in schools.
Right now, children in preschool, day care and private and public school must show proof of vaccination against several diseases, including mumps, measles, whooping cough and diphtheria.
The idea of adding flu vaccinations to the requirements is rooted in two thoughts.
One is that having all students vaccinated against the flu could limit the one-two punch of coronavirus and flu, which have similar symptoms and each of which could be devastating to some individuals, especially if they contract both viruses at the same time.
The other thought is that by administering flu shots, it could make it easier for health officials to identify individuals who have COVID by eliminating flu as a possible illness. That knowledge also could reduce the number of COVID tests that need to be administered.
Both are legitimate reasons for requiring flu shots of all school-age children, and it’s the reason Massachusetts recently enacted a similar requirement and why other states like Connecticut are considering it.
But there also are good reasons for not adding the requirement now.
For starters, unlike with other vaccines, there’s no guarantee the flu shot being given out this year will eliminate the flu in schools.
In February, the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the effectiveness of the 2019-2020 seasonal influenza vaccine was about 45 percent, a little lower for Influenza A viruses and a little higher for Influenza B.
That’s not to say it’s not important to get the flu shot. Fifty percent effectiveness is much better than none. And because the flu is particularly dangerous for young children and older adults, doctors generally recommend that medically qualified individuals get the shot.
But if it’s to be used in concert with efforts to fight the spread of COVID in schools, how effective will it really be and could it add to the confusion?
There’s also the logistics to consider with a mandate.
Are schools and health departments — already overwhelmed by the COVID restrictions, testing and the challenges of providing instruction to students in and out of school — capable of managing the new requirement administratively and ready to inoculate every single student who attends school?
Would schools that are already struggling with providing effective in-school instruction be willing to exclude students who don’t get the flu shot? And what impact could that have on those students’ education?
State officials also have to consider the public’s reaction to another vaccination mandate, particularly with controversy already brewing over a new coronavirus vaccine.
Given the politicization of the coronavirus epidemic, many people are rightly distrustful of the safety of any new COVID vaccine that gets rushed out to market. Yet inoculating the entire population against the coronavirus might be the best way to finally bring this worldwide pandemic to an end.
Does the state really want to start a new vaccination controversy with another one waiting in the wings?
As we said earlier, there may come a time when it’s prudent to consider requiring flu shots for students. But now is clearly not that time.
Rather than impose a mandate, state and school officials should ramp up efforts to promote the benefits of flu shots, and to encourage parents to get themselves and their children inoculated against the virus for their own health and safety.
That means getting educational materials into the hands of students at school, and using other means such as posters and other advertising to emphasize the importance of getting a flu shot.
Parents should also be encouraged to consult with their doctors for guidance and reassurance about the safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccine in helping promote good community health.
Before imposing another mandate on an already overwhelmed health and education system, state officials need to consider whether it will significantly improve the current situation or add to the problems.