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SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project

Could a COVID-19 vaccine become mandatory?


This article is available in both English and Español

States and certain workplaces can require individuals to be vaccinated.

As legal and public health expert Joanne Rosen of Johns Hopkins University has explained, the legal precedent for states to make vaccinations compulsory goes back to a 1905 Supreme Court case involving the smallpox vaccine. The court sided with the state, finding that the vaccination requirement was a reasonable regulation to protect public health.

Employers are also allowed to require their workers to get a vaccine, if vaccination is reasonably related to a person’s job, such as in the health care industry. In guidance issued in December 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission implied that all employers can have a mandatory vaccination policy, including for COVID-19, as long as employers comply with federal laws stipulating that reasonable accommodations should be made for workers who cannot be immunized because of a disability or religious reason. The matter is likely to be tested in court, as we’ve explained, because the COVID-19 vaccines have yet to be fully licensed.

The federal government cannot issue a vaccine mandate, Rosen told us, but could provide financial incentives for states to do so.

“[T]he Supreme Court has interpreted the Tenth Amendment to prevent the federal government from commandeering or requiring state officers to carry out federal directives,” the Congressional Research Service explained in a 2019 report. “In the context of vaccination, this principle prevents Congress from requiring states or localities to pass mandatory vaccination laws, but it does not impede Congress from using its Spending Clause authority to provide incentives (in the form of federal grants) to states to enact laws concerning vaccination.”