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A COVID-19 medical exemption is a little like having an emotional support python: In the vast majority of cases, it’s unjustifiable, irresponsible, and needlessly dangerous.
But that hasn’t stopped perhaps millions of Americans from smugly walking around with a metaphorical snake wrapped around their necks. Medical exemptions have increasingly become the à la mode way for anti-vaxxers to deflect judgment and excuse themselves from mandatory vaccination requirements — even when doctors say there is almost never a well-founded reason to not get the safe and effective shot. What’s worse, like those who abuse the emotional support animal system, the people who take a “rules don’t apply to me” approach to the COVID-19 vaccine are actively endangering the members of the community they purport to be a part of.
In recent weeks I’ve steadily encountered friends and family members who claim they haven’t gotten the vaccine yet due to a medical condition. And though I appreciate the disclosure, all science indicates it’s a phony excuse. Even as everything from a weakened immune system to asthma are cited as reasons to not get the vaccine, doctors say those conditions don’t actually make one ineligible.
Art Krieg, an expert in immune disorders, was recently asked by Bloomberg if he could think of any health conditions that would disqualify someone from the COVID-19 shot: “Absolutely not,” was his answer. “[T]here is no health condition where you should not get the vaccine.” William “Andy” Nish, an allergy and immunology specialist, concurred: “[T]he risk of getting COVID-19 is so much higher and so much worse than the risks of getting the vaccine that it’s just not even debatable,” he told The American Journal of Managed Care. “It’s just something that people need to do.” Joel Fishbain, the medical director for infection prevention at Beaumont Hospital Grosse Pointe, further clarified to Detroit’s 7 Action News that “we do recommend avoiding live virus vaccines in people with immune systems that cannot handle it. This is NOT a live virus vaccine. So that exclusion would not apply.”
One notable exception would be people who had a severe allergic reaction to the first shot — which, of course, would require them to have gotten the initial shot to have discovered. Yet cases of anaphylaxis seem to only occur in about 5 in every million people vaccinated (and those who did have allergic reactions, meanwhile, responded positively to the use of an antihistamine, Bloomberg notes). Pregnancy, or the desire to get pregnant, is likewise not a reason to avoid the vaccine; in fact, it’s even more reason to get it ASAP.
But that hasn’t stopped vaccine skeptics from seeking medical exemption letters — or sham doctors from writing them. “[A]n Oklahoma clinic said on Facebook that if an employer mandates vaccines, they can write a doctor’s note exempting you from it if you qualify,” reports Oklahoma’s 4 News, going on to quote Dr. Dale Bratzler, the University of Oklahoma’s Chief COVID-19 officer, who frets about such “exemption vouchers … that are not based on any science.” Even more worryingly, while 95 percent of doctors are vaccinated, there are still some medical professionals who’ve taken to legitimizing vaccine misinformation and in doing so, endanger their patients’ lives. If your chiropractor told you not to get the vaccine, for example, it’s time to get a second opinion.
In some extreme cases, there are people who have genuine reasons to wait on getting the shot. Chris Frederick, an Ohio man who spoke to News 5 Cleveland, said a new diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) made his doctor tell him to hold off on the shot until they’d done more tests. But even in his case, the pause is only temporary: “Being that they don’t see a problem with having COPD and getting the vaccination, I don’t think that I’ll face too many roadblocks there,” he said.
Importantly, it is people like Frederick — or immune-compromised individuals waiting on their third booster shots, or children under 12 — who rely on the rest of us to take the COVID-19 vaccine seriously and urgently. The more people who decide they’re exceptional and don’t need to follow the rules, the more chance the disease has to circulate in the population and threaten vulnerable individuals, or mutate into a vaccine-resistant strain. Just as people who abuse the emotional support animal system make life harder for people who legitimately require support animals, the rampant abuse of the exemption program only leads to the very few people who actually, really need it to be at an increased risk.
You never know another person’s medical situation, and a lack of compassion for others isn’t productive. But anti-vaxxers need to take accountability for their stances and not hide behind the language of others’ real medical conditions. The obligation to protect yourself against COVID-19 is not just about your own individual wellbeing, after all. It’s a selfless act that protects all those who aren’t lucky enough to have the luxury of choice.