The flawed argument for vaccine mandates

Robert Fellner

The argument for mandatory vaccination rests on two fundamentally contradictory claims. The first claim is undeniably correct: the vaccines work. In fact, they are so effective at preventing serious illness or death that, for the vaccinated, COVID has essentially been transformed into the common cold.

Yet, while this is correctly cited as the argument for why most should get vaccinated, advocates then implicitly suggest the opposite when alleging that the unvaccinated pose a threat to the vaccinated and, therefore, must be forced to take the vaccine. That claim is dangerous and divisive propaganda that has no basis in fact.

There have been less than 1.5 COVID deaths for every 100,000 people vaccinated, according to the most recent data available from the CDC, which is current as of September 13, 2021.[1]

The fatality rate for the seasonal flu, meanwhile, is at least 60 times greater than that. The annual chance of dying in an automobile accident is about 10 times greater.[2]

Here’s another way to think about just how small that risk is: it is essentially the same rate at which someone will have a serious, potentially fatal, adverse side effect from the vaccines.

Thus, the entire argument for mandatory vaccination consists of two fundamentally incompatible claims:

  1. In the context of vaccine side effects, this risk is so small that it should be ignored entirely and treated as equivalent to zero. Thus, the messaging is that vaccines are safe, rather than potentially deadly.
  2. In the context of the ostensible threat COVID poses to the vaccinated, however, that same “zero” level of risk is considered to be so large that it justifies the tremendous violation of individual liberty and bodily autonomy associated with coercive vaccination.

Obviously, both claims cannot be true.

Life entails risk. That the vaccines have effectively eliminated COVID as a meaningful threat to the vaccinated should be celebrated rather than elided over.

The same people pushing for vaccine mandates do not demand a 10 MPH speed limit, despite the enormous lives that would save. Nor do they demand that HIV-positive people wear protective gear or signs indicating their condition to limit the possibility of accidentally transmitting their disease to others.

While such obscene demands could also be justified by citing the “threat” these people pose to others, common sense, decency and a basic respect for individual rights has, thankfully, prevailed over irrational fear.

The CDC drops a bombshell

Although seemingly ignored by all, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently made an announcement that eliminated the entire justification originally put forth for the vaccine mandates.

That a vaccine can halt the spread of the disease, in addition to protecting the recipient, is a necessary condition for a mandate. In that scenario, there is an argument that individual holdouts impose a harm on others by preventing the eradication of the disease that would otherwise occur through widespread vaccination.

That was the case for the traditional vaccines used against polio and smallpox, for example. In addition to protecting against diseases which were over 100 times more deadly than COVID, the polio and smallpox vaccines also provided the crucial benefit of being able to stop transmission, which ultimately led to the effective eradication of both pathogens.

But as Dr. Walensky explained last month, while the COVID vaccines remain incredibly effective at preventing serious illness and death, “what they cannot do anymore is prevent transmission.” This reflects the official position of the agency as well, which is why the CDC now requires vaccinated people to mask indoors and follow the same type of social distancing practices as unvaccinated people.

The official confirmation that COVID is endemic, and vaccination cannot stop transmission and thereby eliminate it in the way it could for things like polio and smallpox, makes mandates intolerable to a free society. The entire argument for mandatory vaccination originally rested on the claim that the vaccines could reliably stop transmission.

And yet, the reaction to learning that this is no longer the case—even as the disease becomes less deadly thanks to better treatments and, of course, the stellar protection of the vaccines themselves—is an even stronger push for vaccine mandates?

Something is deeply amiss here.

So much of the policies related to COVID are based on fear and panic, and it appears as if we are heading to a point of no return. The growing authoritarian tendencies of government, and the rapid normalization of those tendencies among the public, should concern all those who value a free and peaceful society.

While that is still a serious problem, the growing societal trend of treating the vaccinated and unvaccinated as two separate classes—along with the growing vitriol, animosity, and hostility such division necessarily entails—seems to now be an even bigger threat.

Resorting to force, rather than persuasion, is only going to make this situation worse.

Vaccines are a miraculous invention that have saved millions of lives. Their rapid deployment in response to COVID was government and the private sector functioning at its best. Their effectiveness and safety profile make clear that most people should get vaccinated. But going from should to must in an ostensibly free society requires, at minimum, a guarantee of no potential harm to innocents and profound societal benefits. Neither criterion is met here.

A return to decency, compassion, and respect for individual choice—even, if not especially, for those choices you disagree with—is the best way forward.

I hope we find our way back there sooner rather than later.

[1]An earlier version of this commentary stated that this number was 1 in 137,000, referencing an analysis published by the Heritage Foundation. Upon review, the author re-calculated that figure to account for the most current data available from the CDC.
[2] An earlier version of this commentary stated that the chance of dying in a car accident was 1,000 times greater. That figure, however, reflects the lifetime chance of dying in a car accident. The COVID numbers reflect only the first 8 months of 2021. The following statement also appeared in the original version of this commentary and was later removed for the same reason, but is reproduced here for transparency: “Dog attacks, bee stings, sunstroke, cataclysmic storms, and a variety of other background risks we accept as a normal part of life are all more deadly than the risk COVID poses to the vaccinated.”
Robert Fellner

Robert Fellner

Policy Director

Robert Fellner joined the Nevada Policy in December 2013 and currently serves as Policy Director. Robert has written extensively on the issue of transparency in government. He has also developed and directed Nevada Policy’s public-interest litigation strategy, which led to two landmark victories before the Nevada Supreme Court. The first resulted in a decision that expanded the public’s right to access government records, while the second led to expanded taxpayer standing for constitutional challenges in Nevada.

An expert on government compensation and its impact on taxes, Robert has authored multiple studies on public pay and pensions. He has been published in Business Insider,, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register,, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and elsewhere.

Robert has lived in Las Vegas since 2005 when he moved to Nevada to become a professional poker player. Robert has had a remarkably successfully poker career including two top 10 World Series of Poker finishes and being ranked #1 in the world at 10/20 Pot-Limit Omaha cash games.

Additionally, his economic analysis on the minimum wage won first place in a 2011 George Mason University essay contest. He also independently organized a successful grassroots media and fundraising effort for a 2012 presidential candidate, before joining the campaign in an official capacity.