Lawmaker who floated vaccine mandate says not now

As COVID-19 spiked, key senator considered requiring vaccine for students. That’s off the table now
Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex)

Late last year amid the winter’s spike in new COVID-19 cases, one of New Jersey’s leading lawmakers on health care policy said he was considering a bill that would mandate schoolchildren be vaccinated against it, just as for other diseases.

“It should be included [among the required vaccines] unless there is a medical reason otherwise,” said state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate’s health committee.

Seven months later and with the picture still murky for both vaccines and the start of the next school year, Vitale now says he’s not so sure, at least not yet.

“No, not now,” Vitale said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News this week.

“We don’t have the vaccine yet [for all children], and that’s a huge cohort of kids,” said Vitale. “Until there is a vaccine, we’ll wait and see.”

But Vitale said even then, there may not be a need for a state mandate if enough children are getting immunized on their own. “Adding COVID may not be necessary, we’ll see how it goes,” he said.

The senator’s new hesitancy reflects an issue fraught with contention and emotion amid the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, not to mention a statewide election in which the governor’s office and all legislative seats are up for vote.

Election intervention 

In fact, the election is likely saving both branches of government from needing to decide on a vaccine requirement, with the Legislature not expected to come back for voting sessions before the November vote anyway.

But the issue of vaccines and what to require of whom as the pandemic continues — and shows signs of worsening — is hardly taking a recess. And that question of whether schools should eventually mandate the shots for both students and maybe teachers looms large.

The vaccines are currently not available for all children, with only federal approval for those over 12. Vaccine trials continue for younger children, and recent estimates suggest that vaccines could be ready for all children by winter.

Getting children fully vaccinated is at the center of Gov. Phil Murphy’s declaration earlier this summer the state would not require students to wear masks when they return to schools. Murphy’s statement, however, left the option open for school districts themselves to require the face coverings. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has complicated the picture somewhat with recent guidance that only vaccinated students should go without masks, but it also is counting on widespread immunization.

Even before the pandemic, school requirements for vaccinations of any kind proved one of Trenton’s most contentious topics of recent years, bringing hundreds of protesting parents and advocates to the State House in late 2019 when Vitale tried to tighten the existing requirements.

Decision ‘will be based on the science’

Vitale this week said the vaccination debate as a political flashpoint does not play into his current wait-and-see approach, saying only that “whatever decision I make will be based on the science.” He said he still hopes to get that previous bill passed by the end of 2021.

But Vitale said much more needs to be learned about the COVID-19 vaccine for children before the state should mandate it for them. “I think this interim period is important in evaluating the efficacy of the vaccines,” he said.

Murphy himself has also stayed away from the topic, his spokesperson saying Thursday that his office would have no comment on even the prospect of a mandate. But he has generally shied away from the idea, saying in December that he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I would like folks to be convinced that this is safe, efficacious, and it works, and that they come to it of their own free will,” Murphy said at one of his media briefings. “That’s my personal bias.”

Still, Vitale does break from the governor on the latter’s declaration that students — vaccinated or not — need not be masked in the fall, at least not by state order.

“I think all children two years old and above should wear masks,” Vitale said. “I think [Murphy’s plans to defer to local decision] was as much a punt as good policy.”

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