Three-Minute Legal Tips: COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans are in effect throughout the country, and states are seeing varying degrees of success in efforts to make it as widely available as possible.

As vaccination rates continue to rise heading deeper into 2021, communities and businesses are grappling with how the rollout is shaping what is hopefully an eventual return to pre-pandemic life.

In three minutes, UW Law Professor and Health Law LL.M. Director Patricia Kuszler answers frequently asked questions about the vaccine distribution, including whether employers can require employees to get vaccinated, who is eligible for exemptions and whether it is possible to "jump the line" for shots.

Read the Transcript

Patricia Kuszler: My name is Patricia Kuszler. I'm a professor at the University of Washington School of Law. At the School of Law I direct our Health Law LL.M. and our Masters of Jurisprudence program.

Three-Minute Legal Tips: Can employers require their employees be vaccinated?

PK: The answer to that is generally yes. Certainly, that is true of private employers. As a private employer, you can require your employees to be vaccinated. Their option is then either not to work for you or to be vaccinated. There's considerably less clarity with respect to public employers. So, you may need enabling state or federal law to be able to mandatorily vaccinate a government employee.

Three-Minute Legal Tips: What are eligible exemptions for a vaccine?

PK: There are three basic exemptions for vaccines. One is a medical exemption. This is generally attested to by the physician. Usually, this is a case where an individual has a medical condition that would make it dangerous for them to have the vaccine. The second is a religious exemption. These vary quite substantially across states in terms of how much documentation the individual has to have to exercise their religious exemption. Sometimes, this is clear by their religious tenets. The third major arena of vaccine exemption is philosophical exemptions. These have been instituted across many states, most states, over the last 25 years. And they had been articulated quite broadly where the individual would just have to say I don't believe in vaccinations as they drop their five-year-old off at kindergarten with no vaccination. That has changed over the last decade with the re-emergence of infectious disease like whooping cough, measles, chickenpox and now we're seeing philosophical exemptions become somewhat more constrained now. We have in Washington a requirement that a philosophical exemption must also have a visit to the physician for the patient to understand what the implications of that exemption are.

TMLT: Can a person receive the COVID-19 vaccine before their designated group if they pay a fee?

PK: This, of course, speaks to the issue of whether or not someone can jump ahead in the line because they have greater financial resources or greater power. Unfortunately, we've already seen this occur. This is something that should be discouraged, obviously, because this vaccine is supposed to be delivered to the individuals in a specific order to give us the fastest road to herd immunity and the fastest road to decrease mortality and morbidity from this coronavirus.

TMLT: Will public schools be able to require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

PK: The answer to that is probably yes. But, it depends on whether there's enabling legislation to do that. So, we may need state legislation to place coronavirus on the list of infectious diseases in which vaccination is required before a student is allowed to go to a public school. There's a little bit more latitude in terms of public officials and the state or the federal government restricting access to public buildings. It remains to be seen exactly how our legislature will interpret the idea of having mandatory vaccination for COVID-19.

TMLT: Anything else you would like to add?

PK: Assuming, as we hope that this highly transmissible version is also susceptible to current vaccines, the goal would be to get mass vaccination as quickly as possible to decrease a transmission of this potentially fatal infectious disease.