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Sonia Green: The Legal Side of COVID Vaccination in America

The COVID-19 pandemic flipped life completely upside down for every person across the globe since it first entered into human populations in late 2019. Now, just over one year after the start of this pandemic, many people are finding reasons to feel hopeful again with the creation and approval of vaccines against this coronavirus, the most notable of which were manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer. While the scientific process behind creating vaccines is critical in helping to return life back to normal for so many people, there is an often-overlooked process of vaccination campaigns that is now becoming increasingly important to acknowledge and understand: the laws – both local, state, and federal – involved in vaccine distribution and requirements. Recently, I had the chance to speak with Professor Sonia Green who teaches at UIC John Marshall Law School and is a faculty fellow with the Honors College, and she has answered some of the most common and important questions regarding vaccinations from her perspective, both as a lawyer and someone who has a personal investment in making sure people who can receive vaccinations are doing so. 

As some people might be aware by now due to watching different states use different methods for distributing the COVID-19 vaccination, laws targeting vaccines are almost always at the state level rather than at the national level. One of the foundational cases used to establish the vaccine laws is the case Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, which ruled that it was within the constitutional power of the states to uphold vaccination requirements and that individual liberty did not supersede the power of the states in this particular circumstance. What this means for us today in regard to the COVID vaccination campaign is that each state will have to set its own requirements for what activities will require a COVID vaccination. For example, once the vaccine becomes readily available to the general public, it will be up to the states to determine if it will be mandatory for students to have received the COVID vaccine before attending in-person learning. 

Critically, it will also be up to the states to determine what constitutes as a valid reason for seeking an exemption from a vaccine mandate. Regarding broader vaccine laws, there are generally two reasons someone might seek an exemption to a vaccine mandate: medical and religious exemptions. Medical exemptions are based on any pre-existing condition a person might have that does not allow them to receive a vaccine. For example, many children with cancer are unable to receive their vaccines at the usual age because their immune systems are weakened, so they rely on the concept of herd immunity – when enough people have been vaccinated and therefore the disease targeted circulates at much lower levels – to protect themselves. The second exemption, for religious reasons, rests on the ground that some people assert that receiving a vaccine conflicts with their religious beliefs. In order to attend institutions like schools that require vaccinations, families must be able to provide proof of their particular exemption, but some states have more rigorous requirements than others. The differences in the burden of proof placed on individuals seeking exemptions mean that all fifty states have varying levels of vaccinations. These differences are why some communities across the country are seeing outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles and mumps. What does this mean for the future of increased traveling nationwide? According to Professor Green, it will, “depend on the goodwill of states to cooperate and vaccinate well” in order to ensure that all states reach similar levels of vaccination and to protect other states by placing travel restrictions until herd immunity is reached. 

The question on many people’s minds right now is how the anti-vaccination movement in America hinders the distribution of the vaccine and therefore affects the timeline of reaching herd immunity. Unfortunately, there is not a clear-cut answer to that question. There is a wide range of reasons why some people are resistant to receiving a COVID vaccination, ranging from false rumors that vaccines can cause autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to distrust in a vaccine that was created during the Trump administration. However, Professor Green says that in her experience, the majority of people who haven’t received a vaccine are people who simply aren’t aware of the importance of doing so, and these people in the middle are the most willing to change their minds regarding vaccinations.

For students at UIC who are on track to enter into the medical professions, understanding the legal aspects relating to medicine and medical practices are as important as the scientific components. Law and medicine overlap in many ways, particularly when analyzing policies related to health care and health insurance. Doctors and medical professionals need to be involved in the decision making and legislative process when creating these laws because those in medicine have the scientific expertise to create legislation that is safe and scientifically sound. For those who might be interested in pursuing a career in the intersection between law and the health sciences, the UIC School of Public Health offers a joint JD/Masters in Public Health degree, and Professor Green is planning on proposing an Honors 201 seminar about healthcare laws, so be on the lookout for that in the future.