On Aug. 19, 2020, Massachusetts public health officials announced that all children six months of age and older who are attending child care, pre-school, kindergarten, K-12 and colleges and universities in Massachusetts will be required to get the influenza vaccine “to reduce flu-related illness and the overall impact of respiratory illness during the COVID-19 pandemic.”1 Although as of August 2020, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York City require annual flu shots for children enrolled in child care and pre-K school, Massachusetts is the first state to also require influenza vaccinations for all students attending kindergarten, primary and secondary schools and colleges and universities.
Deadline to Get the Influenza Vaccine is December 31, 2020
Students in Massachusetts will be required to show proof of influenza vaccination by Dec. 31, 2020 for the 2020/2021 influenza season to attend child care or school unless a valid medical or religious exemption is provided.2 Exempt from this requirement are K-12 students who are homeschooled and higher education students who do not go on campus and are engaged in distance education only.3
This new vaccination requirement to register for school in January 2020 is in addition to existing vaccine requirements recommended by the U.S. Center for Control and Disease Preventions’ (CDC) Childhood Vaccination Schedule for all those students attending childcare, preschool, K-12, and colleges and universities in Massachusetts.4
Students Educated at Home During Pandemic Not Exempted
Elementary and secondary students in districts and schools that are participating in remote education at home during the coronavirus pandemic declaration are not exempt from the annual flu shot requirement.5 The parents of approximately 30 percent of public school students have opted for their children to participate in at-home remote-only learning, raising questions about how school district officials plan to enforce the vaccine requirement for students who are not attending classes in schools but are being educated at home.6
For adult college and university students, the influenza vaccination requirement applies to all full-time undergraduate and graduate students under 30 years of age and all full-time and part-time health science students. The requirement includes foreign students attending or visiting classes or educational programs in Massachusetts as part of an academic visitation or exchange program. The only exception is for college and university students who exclusively attend classes online and never visit the campus in person. College students who attend any classes or activities on campus, even once, must be vaccinated by Dec. 31, 2020.7
Marylou Sudders, Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, said the requirement will extend beyond the coronavirus pandemic declaration and be permanent in the future, requiring all students from day care enrollment to graduation from college to get influenza vaccines annually.8
Public Health Officials Say Flu Shot Mandate Justified by Fears of COVID-19 Surge in The Fall
Massachusetts public health officials say that the new influenza vaccine requirement is a result of their concern that infection rates of COVID-19 may surge again in the fall when more schools and businesses reopen in the state. They fear that concurrent outbreaks of influenza and COVID-19 could overwhelm the state’s health care system and maintain that, by requiring annual influenza vaccines for all students, it will ease the potential burden on the state’s health care system by decreasing influenza cases. They argue that giving annual flu shots to all children and students from six months old through college age will allow health care workers to spend less time trying to figure out whether symptoms such as fevers and coughs are influenza cases or COVID-19 cases.9
According to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, “I would hope people would understand this is an important part of how we continue to fight the coronavirus here in Massachusetts. The more people who get the flu shot don’t get the flu and don’t wind up in the ER.”10
Massachusetts Residents Protest Against Government Overreach
In response to the influenza vaccine requirement, parents in Massachusetts are protesting the new law. They cite the well-known poor effectiveness of influenza vaccine that has been acknowledged by federal public health officials for many years, with vaccine effectiveness ranging from 10 to 60 percent since 2004.11
According to a parent Jennifer Gaskin of Worcester, Massachusetts, “I understand why this mandate was put in place given the current pandemic and potential impact on hospitals. However, I think it is morally wrong to take away the right to a choice for parents for a vaccination that has minimal efficacy in most cases.”12
She adds that, “This is a very slippery slope and raises concerns that we may be further mandated to give our children the COVID-19 vaccine, which would not have been fully tested prior to release. We wouldn’t know long-term effects or anything based on the proposed timelines.”13
Candice Edwards, executive director of Health Choice 4 Action Massachusetts who has been leading lobbying efforts in opposition to bills relating to vaccines and exemptions, said that medical decisions should be made by a patient or parent and a physician, not by public health officials. Health Choice 4 Action Massachusetts said the organization will be signing a petition to repeal the annual influenza vaccination requirement for all children attending child care and schools in the state.14
1 Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Flu Vaccine Now Required for all Massachusetts School Students Enrolled in Child Care, Pre-School, K-12, and Post-Secondary Institutions. Aug. 19, 2020.
6 Lazar K, Freyer F. Flu shot mandate for Mass. students leaves key questions unanswered. Boston Globe Aug. 20, 2020.
7 See Footnote 1.
8 See Footnote 6.
11 U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Past Seasons Vaccine Effectiveness Estimates 2004-2018 (Influenza Vaccine). Jan. 29, 2020.
12 Hanson M. ‘This is a very slippery slope;’ some Massachusetts residents say flu shot requirement for students wrongfully takes choice away from families. MassLive.com Aug. 20, 2020.