Opinion: Vaccine mandates could make the difference for Detroit

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Lydia Wileden is a research associate for the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study.

President Biden, along with the governors of California and New York, recently announced new requirements for government employees to get vaccinated or to submit to frequent testing for COVID-19. These government groups are not the first to announce vaccine mandates. Hospitals across the country have announced requirements that staff be vaccinated. More than 600 colleges and universities — including the University of Michigan — are requiring vaccines for on campus students and staff this fall. Even a collective of bar owners in San Francisco and the NFL have announced stringent rules around vaccination to try to aid public health efforts.

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Should the City of Detroit be next?

The city has seen more than 52,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,300 deaths since the virus was first detected in Michigan in March 2020. Despite that, more than half of adults living in Detroit are not yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This means that many Detroiters remain at risk of contracting and getting seriously ill from the coronavirus, especially the highly contagious Delta variant surging in many communities. While recent data from the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study (DMACS) finds that many unvaccinated residents are concerned about the vaccines’ safety, the threat of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” requires action. Why not try requiring vaccines?

Detroiters are open to the idea of vaccine mandates according to the most recent DMACS’ survey of a representative sample of city residents — gathered between June 2 and July 9. Survey data show that a majority of Detroit residents support requiring people be vaccinated against COVID-19 before engaging in a variety of public activities, including attending large events, flying on an airplane, using public transit, attending school (college or K-12) in person, and working outside the home. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of residents say they support vaccine requirements in at least one of these settings. Just 13% oppose creating any vaccine requirements. The remaining 15% are unsure generally about vaccine requirements.


Unsurprisingly, support for COVID-19 vaccine requirements varies across groups. Detroiters who have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine are twice as likely to be in favor of vaccine mandates as unvaccinated residents. For example, while 75% of vaccinated Detroiters support requiring proof of vaccination to attend sporting events or concerts, just 32% of unvaccinated residents similarly support such a requirement. Despite that, unvaccinated Detroiters are not totally opposed to requiring vaccines to participate in some parts of public life: half of those who had yet to be vaccinated told us that they are in favor of some type of vaccine requirement. 

Instituting vaccine requirements could serve as a critical nudge and accelerate waning vaccination campaigns. Sixty percent of residents who are not yet vaccinated but say they may vaccinate in the future support some type of vaccine requirement. Much as the MI Shot to Win Sweepstakes and Detroit’s Good Neighbor program seek to incentivize vaccinations with cash, curtailed options for travel or an inability to fully engage in work or public life thanks to vaccine requirements might provide the prod some fence-sitters need to get the shot.

This is not to suggest that vaccine mandates in the city should be pursued as a blanket policy. Only 36% of residents say they support COVID-19 vaccine requirements in every area of life highlighted on the survey. Vaccine requirements in elementary, middle, and high schools are especially contentious. Just 42% of Detroiters living in households with kids support requiring COVID-19 vaccines for age eligible students to attend schools in-person, while one-third oppose such requirements. Roughly half of families who say they are uncomfortable vaccinating their children against COVID-19 oppose requiring vaccinations in schools.

Rollout of vaccine requirements doesn’t have to touch on every part of public life. Though we find support for broad vaccine requirements generally, a first step the City could take to boost immunity is to follow the lead of California, New York, and the Federal Government and require that the roughly 9,000 city employees get vaccinated or provide frequent proof of a negative COVID-19 test. At the same time, vaccination requirements from major employers— like Rocket Companies, which employs about 19,000 people in the city— could boost Detroit’s vaccination rate even more quickly and speed the recovery of the main street economy.

After months of reopening, no one wants to see COVID-19 regain its hold. But without higher vaccination levels, Detroit is vulnerable to another resurgence of the virus. By putting in place vaccine requirements Detroit has an opportunity to act now to keep the city and its residents safe.

Lydia Wileden is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy at U-M and a research associate for the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study. 

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