Massachusetts influenza vaccine mandate withdrawn – an analysis

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This article about why Massachusetts withdrew its influenza vaccine mandate for children was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

On August 19, 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced that the influenza vaccine will be required from all children “6 months of age or older who are attending Massachusetts child care, pre-school, kindergarten, K-12, and colleges and universities.”

The requirement was only for children attending in-person (not online) education and had a deadline of December 31, 2020. A lawsuit was filed against the mandate, apparently, according to the anti-vaccine organization Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), funded by that organization, and brought by the law firm they habitually employ, Siri & Glimstad LLP (In 2019, ICAN paid the law firm $1,263,432 for “legal services” out of over $3.4 million the organization took in as income, according to their 990 filings).

After the Massachusetts Department of Public Health pushed off that deadline to February, they decided to withdraw the influenza vaccine mandate on January 15, 2021.

The Public Health Department explains in a letter:

Preliminary data show that this has been a mild flu season to date, presumably as people have received their seasonal flu vaccine and have been adhering to mask-wearing and social distancing due to COVID-19. Given the intensive Commonwealth-wide efforts regarding COVID-19 vaccination, DPH wants to alleviate the burden to obtain flu vaccination and focus on continuing our COVID -19 vaccination efforts. DPH continues to strongly recommend that everyone age six months and older receive their seasonal flu vaccine each year.

ICAN is celebrating this as a victory of their lawsuit. We do not know which other considerations went into the decision, and the lawsuit may have had an effect, if only by adding to the already full plate of the department during a pandemic.

But the reality is that given the jurisprudence on vaccine mandates, and given the deference most courts show public health authorities during a pandemic, if there were good grounds to insist on the mandate, the department would likely have held its grounds. A number of other factors likely fed into the decision, including, as pointed out, a relatively mild flu season (in part thanks to public health measures against COVID-19), Massachusetts stated desire to bring children back to in-person education, which may have led the department to seek to remove barriers, and the need to focus on the COVID-19 vaccine effort.

Plus, it is mid-January. The benefit of being distracted by a fight over an influenza mandate this late is probably less than the harm to other important efforts.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.