State public health officials announced Wednesday that all children 6 months or older who attend Massachusetts child care programs, pre-school, K-12 schools, colleges and universities will be required to get a flu vaccination, in addition to existing immunization requirements.
Students — including K-12 students in school districts with remote learning, and college students who attend any classes or activities on campus — will need to get a current flu vaccine by Dec. 31, 2020, According to a statement from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Students with a medical, religious or homeschool exemption will not be required to get the vaccine. College and university students who attend classes exclusively online are also exempt.
A spokesperson for the Mass. DPH said in an email that the decision was made as part of a larger plan to help lower the impact of influenza during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Flu symptoms are very similar to those of COVID-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve health care resources," Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of DPH’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, said in a statement.
Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray said focusing on young people makes sense, even though the state already has high rates of childhood flu vaccination. In the 2018-2019 flu season, Massachusetts had the highest rate of any state — 81.8% — for kids age 6 months to 17 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Requiring that children and young adults have a flu vaccine will reduce the chances that people get both the flu and COVID-19, Murray said.
“The students are the ones that are going to be out of the house interacting with other people daily in school, whereas there may be a number of people able to work from home among the adults,” she said.
But some parents question why the mandate only applies to children who already have a high vaccination rate and leaves out their teachers and school staff. They object to requiring an injection that is only effective 40-60% of the time. And they say forcing families to arrange for these shots is not reasonable during a pandemic, especially when many schools will be online.
"Why are we dangling, and saying, you’re not going to get an education, which I think is a huge civil rights violation,” said state Rep. Mike Soter. “You’re limiting someone’s education by telling them they have to have a flu vaccine.”
Soter said he’s not opposed to vaccines in general. He worries that the flu vaccine mandate is feeding fear that the government will require coronavirus vaccines when they become available.
“It’s spooking people out, it’s scaring people,” he said, “and that’s not right.”
Public health leaders are working on an information campaign to help people better understand vaccines for both the flu and the coronavirus.
The department is "confident" that there will be adequate supplies of flu vaccine to meet demand, according to a department spokesperson. He also said that the state will work with local health departments to implement public flu clinics.
Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association President and CEO Steve Walsh said that the upcoming flu season is a "major concern" among healthcare providers already preparing for a second wave of COVID-19.
"We appreciate the Baker Administration’s proactive focus on areas like classrooms, where a flu outbreak could further harm the health of our communities and overwhelm our hospitals," Walsh said in a statement. "Just like wearing a mask and social distancing, getting a flu shot is a simple but powerful way to help our healthcare community through what will be a very challenging fall.”
Higher education leaders said they understand the need to require the flu vaccine and don't expect implementation will be too difficult. College students, with some exceptions, are already required to show proof of a meningitis vaccine when they enroll.
Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said the "belt and suspenders" approach made sense, given the the ongoing pandemic.
"Given the environment we're in, I think this is a good proposal at a time where caution is warranted," he said.
Enforcement of the new rule will be left to local communities and schools, said the DPH spokesperson.
This article was originally published on August 19, 2020.