It is not uncommon for legislators to introduce bills that they know won't pass, but that have symbolic value of some sort, like renaming a bridge or freeway to honor a constituent. Every so often, however, they propose something that is so completely idiotic, anti-social, and authoritarian that it becomes the very personification of irresponsibility. Two examples come to mind, one last February, the other this month.
The first example is legislation making it a criminal misdemeanor to administer a COVID-19 or other mRNA vaccine in Idaho. State Senator Tammy Nichols and State Representative Judy Boyle, both Republicans, cosponsored House Bill (HB) 154, which states simply:
A person may not provide or administer a vaccine developed using messenger ribonucleic acid [mRNA] technology for use in an individual or any other mammal in this state. A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Thus, the prohibition would apply not only to COVID-19 vaccines for humans but also, for example, to mRNA vaccines to prevent rabies or parvovirus in dogs.
Yes, you read that correctly: Administering an FDA- or USDA-approved vaccine to prevent a potentially lethal disease would be a crime.
There are several ironies in this legislation that indicate how ill-advised it is.
First, the proposal came during the winter COVID surge, at a time when we clearly needed to continue to try to control the pandemic. And despite what you might have heard from COVID deniers and minimizers, that need continues: Although cases of COVID are now much lower than at their earlier peaks, they are surging, as are COVID hospitalizations, deaths, and the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID) in wastewater.
Vaccines are essential to that effort, and the most widely used, most effective ones are produced with mRNA technology. Two new, updated mRNA-based COVID vaccines were approved by the FDA on September 11th.
Data presented at the February 24th meeting of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices showed that the benefits of the mRNA COVID vaccines, billions of doses of which by then had been administered worldwide, far outweigh the risks. In addition to the documentation from the CDC and FDA, the New England Journal of Medicine has a COVID-19 Vaccine Resource Center with a variety of articles that document the safety, importance, and favorable risk-benefit balance of vaccination.
The most recent data on COVID vaccine efficacy, in a September 12 presentation by the CDC's Dr. Ruth Link-Gelles, further confirmed the effectiveness of the bivalent vaccines administered last fall. They reduced Emergency Department and Urgent Care visits by 60% and hospitalizations by 65%.
Finally, as I alluded to above, Idaho HB 154 did not single out COVID vaccines specifically, so mRNA vaccines for severe infections such as shingles, pneumococcus, meningitis B, and tetanus, were they to become available, would also be prohibited, as would veterinary vaccines.
It's difficult to understand the motivation for the Nichols-Boyle legislation. It is scientifically and medically insupportable, endangers Idahoans and their animals, and is extremely authoritarian — a deadly irony considering Idaho took the lead among many states in 2021, calling mandates a violation of American freedom when President Biden proposed making it a crime to resist getting a vaccine.
"Threatening Americans into compliance damages a country already divided," said Idaho Governor Brad Little after the state legislature passed a bill opposing federal vaccine mandates. I guess Orwellian Big Brother-ism only applies when you disagree with the mandate.
The second example occurred on September 5th, when freshman U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) introduced legislation to prohibit federal mask mandates from being imposed in the U.S. The Freedom to Breathe Act, which would apply through the end of 2024, "would prohibit any federal official, including the President, from issuing mask mandates applying to domestic air travel, public transit systems, or primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools," according to the senator's office.
This legislation will ensure that no federal bureaucracy, no commercial airline, and no public school can impose the misguided policies of the past," Vance said. His rationale? "We tried mask mandates once in this country. They failed to control the spread of respiratory viruses, violated basic bodily freedom, and set our fellow citizens against one another.
Saying that masks fail to completely control the spread of respiratory viruses is like saying that because airbags fail to prevent all deaths from car crashes, mandating them should be prohibited. The logic is preposterous. And as for sowing divisiveness, such absurd pseudo-libertarian legislative proposals go a long way toward that.
Sen. Vance seems oblivious to reality. Since the beginning of July, new weekly COVID hospitalizations in the U.S. have tripled, deaths are up about 1.5%, and SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater are up nearly four-fold since late June.
At the risk of stating the obvious (although it might not be to Sen. Vance), masks work, and so do mask mandates.
A study of 33,000 pupils in eight school districts in Massachusetts found an infection rate of 11.7% for the unmasked compared to 1.7% for masked children.
Also in Massachusetts, a study compared the numbers of COVID infections between school districts where compulsory masking requirements were lifted with those where they were maintained. Before the statewide masking policy was rescinded, the trends in the incidence of COVID in the Boston and Chelsea districts — which retained masking requirements — were similar to trends in school districts that later lifted masking requirements. However, "after the statewide masking policy was rescinded, the trends in the incidence of COVID-19 diverged, with a substantially higher incidence observed in school districts that lifted masking requirements than in school districts that sustained masking requirements."
More evidence of the effectiveness of masks and mask mandates is discussed here. An article I wrote recently summarizing the current flood of disinformation on mask-wearing appeared earlier this month.
Another key finding about masking especially affects students, who are packed together day after day: The use of masks doesn't just protect the individual; it multiplies the protection of the entire community. As Dr. Katelyn Jetelina and Yale University ER physician Dr. Kristen Panthagani point out:
Viral transmission in a population is exponential. Even if masks only reduce the risk of transmission for each individual by a small fraction, when a community masks, those small effects compound exponentially across a population, making a big dent in cases. Just like compounding interest — a small change in the percentage makes a big difference down the road.
Sen. Vance's ill-considered legislation, which is unlikely to become law, seems to have been simply an exercise in pseudo—libertarian posturing and virtue-signaling. The Nichols-Boyle Idaho ban on mRNA vaccines, were it to become law, would be nothing short of a clear and present danger to public health.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger distinguished fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.