The Department of Education announced last week that it will be delaying the start of fall sports and requiring all student-athletes, athletic staff and volunteers to be vaccinated. The announcement came as students began full in-person learning for the first time in 18 months, and the number of daily COVID-19 cases continued to surge.

The decision sparked the usual backlash blend of genuine disappointment, exhausted frustration and reactionary outrage. It’s much easier to sympathize with the first two.

Competition is an important experience for a lot of people, and I don’t trivialize how truly life-changing it can be. Sports can push us to our physical and mental limits; you tend to learn a lot about yourself when your heart is pounding and your legs are burning and a team, school or community is investing their hopes in you. You learn to be aware of how your actions can impact others around you, a lesson that is in dire need right now.

For most people, high school is the highest level of competitive athletics they’ll get to participate in. After local athletes had their final seasons cut short last school year — and the school year before that, if they played spring season sports — it’s not hard to understand and commiserate with the impatience and anxiety a lot of people feel.

Then there’s the reactionary posturing, which thrives online and takes the form of all the usual bad faith arguments: “A vaccine mandate is an infringement on my rights” or “vaccines are just as dangerous as COVID-19.” Let’s investigate those claims.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found the vast majority of new COVID cases have been among the unvaccinated. More than 166 million Americans have been fully vaccinated and another 28 million are partially vaccinated. So far, adverse effects have been incredibly rare — a total of 716 reports of heart inflammation; 143 reports of either temporary or permanent nerve damage; and 41 reports of blood clotting. Roughly two to five people per million have had severe allergic reactions, which can be treated on the spot. And while there have been 6,490 reports of death after the vaccine, that number includes all deaths that took place after vaccination, even when the vaccine was not determined to be the cause.

Closeup of COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine in syringes inside the Hawaii Pacific Health bus located at Ilima Intermediate School vaccinations. July 27, 2021
The data clearly shows that being vaccinated is a whole lot safer than getting COVID-19, and playing sports magnifies the risk of exposure. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Compare that to over 616,000 deaths in nearly 36 million cases of COVID-19. That’s 95 times more deaths associated with COVID compared to deaths associated with any of the COVID vaccines, despite the amount of COVID cases accounting for about one-10th of the amount of vaccine doses administered. The virus has killed way more people with way fewer opportunities, to say nothing of the long-term risk for heart problems, even among young and healthy demographics.

The DOE’s job is to make sports as safe as possible for students. The data clearly shows that being vaccinated is a whole lot safer than getting COVID-19, and playing sports magnifies the risk of exposure.

With few exceptions, most sports either necessitate prolonged and close physical contact with other players, or they take place in poorly ventilated gymnasiums. The likelihood of viral transmission is significantly higher in those circumstances; I can think of no more comfortable arena for COVID-19 than a scrimmage line in a football game, where linemen are inches from each other’s faces grunting, shouting and sweating.

You could make the case for some sports to be exempted from the vaccine mandate, like tennis or golf, but the problem at that point is logistical: it’s hard to manage a situation like this on a granular, sport-by-sport basis, especially when so many athletes play more than one sport in high school. It’s both the simplest and most thorough solution to require all student-athletes to be vaccinated.

It’s hard to take seriously the people arguing that vaccine mandates are an infringement on freedom and individual rights. Not only has the DOE for years required numerous vaccinations — for hepatitis, HPV, polio and chickenpox, among others — in order to play sports, the very concept of freedom in this context is incredibly specious.

If you have any kind of public life outside of your home — which the student-athletes in question do, since they attend school — your actions affect other people. It’s not always on purpose or something we’re consciously aware of, but it happens, because we share living spaces with one another.

People have always confused freedom with entitlement, but freedom does not mean getting to do whatever you feel like. It is not an infringement of liberty, for instance, to legally require people to go to designated places to use the bathroom. There are rules you have to follow to ensure the health and safety of other people, even if it means you can’t do some things you may wish to do. Real freedom can only be built on a foundation of responsibility to those around you.

Despite a deeply cynical appropriation of the pro-abortion slogan “my body, my choice,” the consequences of vaccination extend beyond your body and can directly affect the bodies of numerous others around you. No one has the right to magnify other people’s risk of getting sick. This is intuitive, but it’s also constitutional. Vaccine mandates have been implemented and upheld for over a century.

All of this fails to mention that if you have a legitimate reason to not get vaccinated, you don’t have to and you can still play sports — so long as you get tested regularly.

What is lost amid all the social media shrieking is that requiring vaccines is the compromise. The safest, most prudent thing to do is to cancel sports again. Instead, the DOE has provided multiple avenues to mitigate risks so that the seasons can go on as scheduled. Seems reasonable to me.

Vaccines have their limits. Fully vaccinated people can still get infected, and they can still transmit the virus to others. But the data we have is fairly clear that the severity of infection is greatly reduced among vaccinated populations. Even if that were the only benefit, it is reason enough to require vaccines.

My feeling is that a lot of the resentment toward mandated vaccines is a proxy for resentment toward visitors. I can sympathize with that; it’s frustrating to feel like residents have to abide by more rules than tourists do, even though there are more tourists here than residents in any given year. I’m on board with the idea of requiring full vaccination for all visitors. We’re experiencing a surge, so why not apply the same requirement for our student-athletes to tourists?

This situation sucks, and my heart goes out to the players for having to leap yet another hurdle when all they want to do is play. But this is a reasonable and fair requirement. Vaccines are free and, for the most part, easily accessible. If a student-athlete is still not convinced to get vaccinated, that’s their call, but there are consequences for our decisions. In this case, the consequences are to either submit to regular testing, or to not play sports in the OIA.

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