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Credit: Isabel Liang

I recently reposted a tweet by the British rapper Zuby which read, “You can be in favour of something but opposed to it being mandatory. You can be against something but not in favour of it being banned.” While I don’t typically look to the music industry for political commentary, the tweet did a great job of stating what I believe to be obvious: vaccine and mask mandates have undoubtedly entangled political rationale with regard to matters of public health, a decision that is going to have drastic consequences for the future of crisis response and the ethos of leaders in the public and private sector.

Since the start of the pandemic, public officials have had to balance life and livelihood in mitigation policies; too harsh, and public liberties and the economy are crippled, leading to mass protests and public outcry. Overly laissez-faire responses, on the other hand, can lead to overrun hospitals and a great toll on human health.

More recently, that same balancing act has been necessary for vaccination efforts and mandates. While vaccination mandates in the United States are nothing new, they existed in scenarios vastly different from what we are currently encountering. Previous vaccine mandates, such as those for varicella, occurred following Food and Drug Administration approval. This is unlike the COVID-19 vaccine, which was mandated in many sectors (such as education, work, and recreational engagement) prior to the recent FDA full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech-patented version of the vaccine. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, meanwhile, with 150 million 14.8 million doses distributed respectively, still have not been fully approved. Mandates prior to FDA approval — our country’s primary means of regulating pharmaceuticals — are not only illogical but very confusing to the populace. If the government doesn’t trust the vaccine enough to approve it, why should you be forced to receive it?

It is also vital to understand the climate in which the vaccine development actually occurred in the first place. Unlike any other vaccination, the coverage of Operation Warp Speed (according to the government, “a federal effort that supported multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates to speed up development”) was extremely public. While this allowed people to stay informed about the vaccine, it also led to an oversaturation of information — both truthful and misleading. Concerns about potential consequences for fertility and clotting, which would have typically been debated behind closed doors in the medical community, were hashed out on mainstream news networks and social media.

This was accompanied by blatant political adversity toward the vaccine on both sides of the aisle, depending on which administration was “responsible” for it, which unsurprisingly led to a large dose of public skepticism. Under the Trump administration, many prominent Democrats expressed concerns about the speed of vaccine development. During the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate, Kamala Harris said she “wouldn’t take the vaccine because Donald Trump said so,” but rather only if public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci had recommended for her to do so. Comparable arguments have been made by prominent conservatives in response to the Biden administration’s push for the vaccine. The issue here becomes the lack of ethos that politicians are entrusting in each other by publicly taking issue with their pushing of the vaccines, when in reality, a unified front is critical for actually instilling confidence in people to get vaccinated.

Similarly, things like “vaccine passports” are not holding to the promises that accompanied past vaccine mandates. State governments and private companies are tightening access to exemptions, like Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, who signed a bill to end the religious exemption. Areas with high vaccination rates, low breakthrough cases (when vaccinated people contract COVID-19), and democratic leadership — like my own home city of Stamford, Conn. — are reintroducing mask mandates, something we were told we would be waving goodbye to when handed our vaccine cards. 

These issues decrease trust and encourage apathy towards public health recommendations. With regular “renegotiation” of the “rules” of this pandemic, people — particularly those who are young and less likely to have severe implications accompanying a COVID-19 diagnosis — are losing their inclination to follow rules that are subject to change. Despite the fact that many of these changes may be due to improvements in our understanding of the virus, explicit statements on the part of politicians and institution leaders have created distrust. This phenomenon is anecdotally obvious on Penn’s campus. Our vaccination rate stands at 97%. Yet, we have an indoor mask mandate. Who is the mandate protecting? Shouldn’t vaccines be enough? 

The vaccine has been proven to be very effective, and “breakthrough” infections are rare, occurring in about 10,000 out of 100 million vaccinated individuals. In a recent Philadelphia Magazine piece that highlighted rising Delta variant infections, Drexel and Temple epidemiologists explained that a “hypothetical chain of transmission [among vaccinated people] on its own isn't necessarily a reason to mandate universal indoor masking, including among the vaccinated.” It is also important to consider that cases in Philadelphia and similar areas with high vaccination rates are substantially lower than their peaks during the pandemic.

The question could be asked then: Why is Penn requiring masks?

Frankly, the issue of why Penn’s requirement exists pales in importance to how apathetic the University is at enforcing some of these COVID-19 policies. At the Second-Year Orientation “Class of 2024 Photo” event on Franklin Field, I saw that masks were sporadically worn and only enforced when it was time to take our photo. This sentiment held true at most other orientation events as well.

Penn’s apathy is also evident in the unclear policies regarding contact tracing and quarantining. According to University procedure, vaccinated students are not required to quarantine in every instance of exposure. In addition, they must complete a PennOpen Pass each day, despite the fact that passes are not being regularly checked upon entrance to classes, and it’s been nearly impossible to sit through a lecture these first few weeks where someone — if not the whole room — is coughing up a lung, a symptom which should produce a red pass. It seems that neither the students nor the University have any appetite for actually enforcing the PennOpen Pass system. The University has been similarly touting a 1% positivity rate and zero-classroom transmission, despite the fact that there was zero enforcement of bimonthly mandatory testing until this week. Whether you support the aspirations of Penn’s COVID-19 response or not, the reality is that many of these policies exist in name only.

This in and of itself is not an argument against the effectiveness of masking and or testing as a way of curbing the spread of the virus. It is, however, a reflection on the lack of follow-through by Penn’s administration to enforce policies that it publicly supports. By the same token, it highlights the issues with Penn making claims about positivity rates without regularly testing all — or even most — of the student body. If the University doesn’t value legitimate carry-out of these policies, why should we be subject to them?

While I encourage you to do what makes you feel safe, I also ask that you join me in refraining from exercising judgment on issues of personal health based on politicized reasoning. Misdirected government initiatives are bad, lack of personal choice is dangerous, and politicized public health is a slippery slope that won’t stop with COVID-19, whether it’s at Penn or the country at large.

The lack of trust in the legitimacy of our institutions’ guidelines poses a grave threat to future health responses, and officials should be wary of the long-term damage they are causing. This is reflected in recent polling, with about one in five Americans saying they trust the recommendations of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “not very much/not at all.” Wherever you stand politically, you should find the implications of this statistic on our country’s ability to handle not only this public health crisis but any that we may encounter in the future, alarming.

LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is