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Tying the Hands of Public Health
In the wake of hundreds of bills restricting mask and vaccine requirements, Americans are now less prepared for the next pandemic.
Now that the COVID pandemic has ended, two facts have emerged:
First, this won’t be the last pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus. Pandemic coronavirus SARS-1 appeared in 2002, MERS in 2012, and SARS-CoV-2 in 2019. That’s three pandemic viruses in the last 20 years. Novel influenza viruses can also cause pandemics. It’s safe to assume that we haven’t seen the end of this.
Second, from a public health standpoint, we are now far less prepared for the next pandemic than we were for this one. Federal, state, and local health departments that mandated masks and vaccines inadvertently leaned into a libertarian left hook. Between January 1, 2021, and May 20, 2022, more than 180 state laws were enacted that limited public health measures. For example, during the next pandemic:
• Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee will prohibit state governments, schools, or businesses from mandating masks.
• Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming will prohibit state public health agencies from mandating vaccines.
• Health officials in Ohio won’t be able to shutter businesses or schools, even if they are the epicenter of the outbreak. Nor will they be able to enforce quarantines, a staple of public health.
• The CDC, handcuffed by a ruling from one judge in Florida, will not be allowed to mandate masks for travel.
• Following a ruling by a Texas judge on March 23, 2023, the President will no longer be allowed to mandate a vaccine for federal employees.
“The courts are leaving us vulnerable,” said Wendy Parmet, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Health Policy and the Law.
Studies have now convincingly shown that masks and vaccines dramatically lessen the risk of catching and transmitting SARS-CoV-2 virus. These measures aren’t perfect. Some who are vaccinated, and some who wear masks, might still get a mild infection or transmit the virus. But the risk is lower. Much lower. Despite arguments from anti-vaccine activists and science denialists, this is no longer a scientific or medical controversy.
Ironically, the lesson learned from this pandemic appears to be that individual freedoms trump public health. “One day we’re going to have a really bad global crisis and a pandemic far worse than COVID, and we’ll look to the government to protect us, but it’ll have its hands behind its back and a blindfold on,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “We’ll die with our rights on—we want liberty, but we don’t want protection.”
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