One and a half years after the first round of pandemic lockdowns, we’re starting to see history repeat itself. COVID-19 cases are spiking across the US, with some states reporting numbers higher than ever and restrictions like mask mandates beginning to be re-implemented. So, as vaccines are increasingly available across the country, how are we still in this same position?
In July, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that we are entering “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Only about half of the US population is currently vaccinated, and although that number has been growing in the past weeks, it’s not rising fast enough. This slow vaccination rate, coupled with the highly contagious Delta variant, is causing COVID-19 cases to grow while reducing the amount of hospital space and resources across the country. And although the Delta variant can still infect those who have received the vaccine, it is estimated that 98 to 99 percent of recent COVID-related deaths are among those who are unvaccinated.
It is clear, at least for now, that readily available COVID vaccines are our best move forward. They’re proven to be effective against the virus, and even with a slightly diminished efficacy against the Delta variant, they still protect against hospitalization. It will be vital to encourage communities to get vaccinated if we ever want the chance to beat this pandemic.
However, there are still large groups of people who are hesitant or in outright opposition to receiving the vaccine, and their reasons vary across the country. Some communities have very valid reasons for not receiving the vaccine, from medical exemptions to lack of accessibility—especially among marginalized and disabled communities. However, others have become susceptible to misinterpreted vaccine data and even conspiracy theories, such as microchipping and the altering of people’s DNA. These sorts of theories have become talking points of the far-right who attempt to sow distrust in our government as they fight against vaccine and mask mandates and further politicize this virus.
Luckily, states are starting to recognize the importance of getting their populations vaccinated, especially in relation to opening up their economies. More states are now implementing vaccine mandates, and while this is a step in the right direction, there is still a way for anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists to slip through the cracks: religious exemptions.
Religious exemptions for school immunizations have been around for quite some time: 44 states and Washington, DC still offer some form of religious exemption for students. Over time, we’ve seen the dire effects of allowing such loopholes. In 2018 and 2019, we saw measles outbreaks across the country, sickening 1,000 Americans in 28 states, resulting in New York becoming the fifth state to close religious exemptions for vaccinations.
And it’s only getting trickier. As vaccine mandates expand to whole cities, not limited to just schools or government offices, we’re seeing growing confusion among employees and employers, especially in the private sector. Following guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, many businesses that are instituting a vaccine mandate are allowing for religious objections. However, there is no standard practice for evaluating and granting religious exemptions, making it difficult for businesses to assess the validity of such claims. Many employers are finding themselves struggling to balance public health and safety with the religious protections provided by the US Constitution.
Although individual religious objections range from “vaccines use aborted fetal cells” to “vaccines interfere in God’s plan”, it is a well-known fact that there are no major religions with theological objections to vaccines. And directly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, many major faith leaders have actually encouraged their followers to get a vaccine, including Pope Francis himself. This means that many who are attempting to utilize religious exemptions provided by the state or employers are most likely anti-vaxxers or those basing their decisions on poor data and conspiracy theories. There would be no issue with religious exemptions if the few taking them were honest about their doctrine actually rejecting vaccines. However, most claiming these exemptions are willing to lie about their faith, due to their ignorance about vaccinations, leading to dire health crises.
In some places like Charlotte, North Carolina, churches have started openly offering religious exemptions for church members who don’t want to receive a vaccine. Although legal experts believe these won’t hold up in court, the process for accepting religious exemptions differs from state to state and from employer to employer. As mentioned earlier, this is new territory for many employers, meaning some will be more forgiving than others. Also, the Supreme Court has recently been leaning in favor of religious freedom cases, which could open the doors for many religious objectors.
In addition to the debate over the reasoning and sincerity of those who apply for a religious exemption, we must also remember the dangers these exemptions pose to the rest of the community. Allowing avoidance of necessary vaccinations for anything other than a valid health reason puts marginalized communities, especially Black and Brown populations, at risk. These communities not only experience a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, but in many cases, they also have a harder time accessing COVID-19 vaccines. Those who are low-income, food-insecure, and have children at home are even more likely to be unvaccinated because they simply don’t have the resources to seek them out. Many don’t have the time or opportunity to miss work to receive the shot or to recover from side effects. Refusing to get vaccinated also puts immunocompromised individuals with valid medical exemptions at risk, making it harder and more dangerous for these communities to go back to school or into the office.
Many states have been considering doing away with religious exemptions, and we’ve seen leaders take up this kind of action successfully. Connecticut is the sixth and latest state to get rid of religious exemptions from immunization requirements in schools, with Governor Lamont signing the bill in April of this year. Although they will be facing legal challenges from opponents, the Governor has expressed how important this bill is and the “public health impact that it has on our children, families, and communities.”
In order to protect those who are already struggling with cancer and other immunocompromising conditions, in order to reduce the risk for marginalized communities with increased risk to the pandemic, in order to prevent the deaths now at several hundred people a day, we must act. We must end religious exemptions. Many other states should follow Connecticut’s lead if we are to more effectively overcome this pandemic. The COVID-19 vaccine debate shouldn’t be a question of religious freedom, but rather, it should be about public health and safety. Think of your friends, family, and community. The only way we beat the COVID-19 pandemic is by taking the necessary precautions and trusting in the science. The vaccines have been proven effective against fighting this virus, and although it is ever-changing, the only way we stay ahead of it is by increasing the population of vaccinated people.