By MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News
(BOSTON) — Hundreds of people gathered Sunday to protest a new flu vaccine mandate for Massachusetts students, enacted as school districts prepare to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the demonstration in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, protesters — some of them children — held signs that read “Unavoidably unsafe,” “My child, my choice,” “Parents call the shots” and “I am not a threat.” “No forced shots” was written in chalk in front of the statehouse. Many demonstrators were not wearing masks or social distancing, according to photos and videos taken of the event.
The protest follows an Aug. 19 announcement from state officials that influenza immunization will be required for all children ages 6 months or older who are attending Massachusetts child care, pre-school, kindergarten, and K-12. Full-time undergraduate and graduate students under 30 and all full and part-time health science students attending school in the state must also get the vaccine.
Several protesters said that the flu shot should be a choice — an argument frequently used against mask mandates, including in schools — due to the pandemic.
“The flu vaccine should not be a mandate. It should be a choice,” Jessica Marchant told ABC Boston affiliate WCVB.
Other protesters told the station they believe state officials are “taking advantage” of the fear caused by the virus.
“I think parents are vulnerable right now. They need their kids to go to school and they backed us into a corner,” Taryn Proulx told WCVB-TV. “We feel like we have to just comply or rearrange our whole lives and homeschool our children.”
The mandate comes as experts are bracing for what some have called a “twindemic” of COVID-19 and the flu. Children are more vulnerable to the seasonal flu than COVID-19, medical experts told ABC News. Those under 5 years old are at the highest risk of developing serious flu-related complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine because flu symptoms are very similar to those of COVID-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve health care resources,” Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, said in a statement announcing the flu requirement.
Under the mandate, students must now receive the vaccine annually by Dec. 31. Medical or religious exemptions are allowed. Home-schooled or off-campus college students are also exempt. Elementary and secondary students who are remote are not exempt.
A majority of school districts in the state, including Boston, plan to reopen in the coming weeks with hybrid learning, according to an analysis by WCVB.
Massachusetts has some of the highest vaccination rates in the country. During the 2018-2019 flu season, 81% of children ages 6 months to 17 years and 53.5% of adults got the vaccine, according to the CDC.
Massachusetts is the first state to mandate the flu vaccine for all children and joins a handful of states that already require it for child care and/or preschool enrollees, according to research by the Immunization Action Coalition.
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