Despite considerable pushback, I stand by my controversial opinion that dying is bad. It’s a hill I’m willing to live on.

With that in mind, I applaud the University of Illinois’ decision to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students attending fall classes on all three of its campuses.

In an email message sent Monday, university President Tim Killeen wrote: “This requirement is consistent with our own scientific modeling of the risks associated with the spread of the virus and its variants. It is also consistent with the Illinois Department of Public Health’s goals.”

Wanting throngs of young people who live and attend classes together to be vaccinated against a highly contagious virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans is also consistent with common sense. And while common sense is something many Americans struggled with since the pandemic began (I WON’T WEAR A FACE MASK BECAUSE THAT’S TYRANNY!!), it will be needed as we navigate this pivotal public health moment.

In case you hadn’t noticed, life has gotten better lately. COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in many places and the world is reopening, moving toward some new form of normalcy. You can thank science for that, as the vaccines have driven down the number of infections and, mercifully, the number of hospitalizations and deaths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62.4% of Americans ages 12 and up have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. About 53% of Americans ages 12 and up are now fully vaccinated. That’s about 45% of the total U.S. population, which is good, but not nearly good enough.

In Illinois, the numbers are comparable to the national averages: 67.8% of the 12-and-up population has at least one shot and 51.6% are fully vaccinated.

Again, good. But not good enough.

Like all nasty viruses, this one mutates and forms variants that can be more contagious, more deadly and, in a worst-case scenario, more capable of evading vaccines.

The more the virus lingers, spreading among those who refuse the vaccine, the higher the chance of a vaccine-resistant variant developing and moving us back to restrictions and higher risk.

Consider this excerpt from a recent paper published in the magazine Foreign Affairs, written by a group of six epidemiologists and other health experts: “Variants are an unavoidable byproduct of the pandemic’s exponential growth. More than half a million new cases of COVID-19 are reported every day. Each infected person harbors hundreds of billions of virus particles, all of which are constantly reproducing. Each round of replication of every viral particle yields an average of 30 mutations. The vast majority of mutations do not make the virus more transmissible or deadly. But with an astronomical number of mutations happening every day across the globe, there is an ever-growing risk that some of them will result in more dangerous viruses, becoming what epidemiologists call ‘variants of concern.’”

In keeping with my bold “dying is bad” philosophy, I am staunchly opposed to “variants of concern.” They make me a “human who is concerned.”

So we need to press forward on vaccinations while also closing off opportunities for the virus to spread willy-nilly in high-traffic, close-contact places like universities. That’s why the University of Illinois, by joining private universities like Northwestern, DePaul and the University of Chicago, is doing the right thing for its students and for the communities those students call home.

The vaccines’ effectiveness is striking. Virtually all hospitalized COVID-19 patients now are people who haven’t been vaccinated. The vaccines work so well that The Washington Post produced one of the best headlines ever: “Coronavirus infections dropping where people are vaccinated, rising where they are not, Post analysis finds.” That could just as easily be: “Fan-related nose amputations dropping where people are not sticking their faces in fans, rising where they are.”

Vaccines work, folks. And they’re abundantly safe.

There’s a vaccine tracking page on the website of the Mayo Clinic, a medical organization people used to trust back when they weren’t getting all their medical advice from something a friend of a friend of a friend posted on Facebook. The Mayo Clinic page notes: “The safety of COVID-19 vaccines has been studied extensively, and adverse effects such as serious allergic reactions are rare. These vaccines were approved quickly because the red tape was cut — not corners.”

The University of Illinois already requires students to provide proof they’ve been immunized against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, meningitis, measles, mumps and rubella. I don’t know what half those diseases are, and I have vaccines to thank for that ignorance.

It would be outrageous for the university system not to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, and I expect other state universities here and across the country to follow suit.

Despite the loud and dishonest attempts by many to make vaccinations a matter of ideology, this is and will continue to be a matter of public health. And the way to keep the public healthy and prevent potentially devastating coronavirus variants is to vaccinate as many Americans as possible, and to make it clear that not getting vaccinated is a choice that will limit your opportunities.

That isn’t tyranny, it’s common sense. You can read all about it in my upcoming book, “Not Dying: A Radically Good Idea.”




Copyright © 2021, Chicago Tribune


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