From Washington to Biden, Federal Vaccine Mandates Are Not a New Thing

After the Battle of Quebec, General George Washington decided that the American troops needed to be inoculated with smallpox to give them the disease under controlled conditions in order for those who were inoculated to then be immune to the disease. (This was about 20 years before the first vaccine.) According to the Library of Congress:

“On the 6th of January 1777, George Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr., ordering him to inoculate all of the forces that came through Philadelphia. He explained that: “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.” The urgency was real. Troops were scarce and encampments had turned into nomadic hospitals of festering disease, deterring further recruitment. Both Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, after surveying the havoc wreaked by Variola in the Canadian campaign, expressed fears that the virus would be the army’s ultimate downfall.
At the time, the practice of infecting the individual with a less-deadly form of the disease was widespread throughout Europe. Most British troops were immune to Variola, giving them an enormous advantage against the vulnerable colonists. Conversely, the history of inoculation in America (beginning with the efforts of the Reverend Cotton Mather in 1720) was pocked by the fear of the contamination potential of the process. Such fears led the Continental Congress to issue a proclamation in 1776 prohibiting Surgeons of the Army to inoculate.
Washington suspected the only available recourse was inoculation, yet contagion risks aside, he knew that a mass inoculation put the entire army in a precarious position should the British hear of his plans. Moreover, Historians estimate that less than a quarter of the Continental Army had ever had the virus; inoculating the remaining three quarters and every new recruit must have seemed daunting. Yet the high prevalence of disease among the army regulars was a significant deterrent to desperately needed recruits, and a dramatic reform was needed to allay their fears.
Weighing the risks, on February 5th of 1777, Washington finally committed to the unpopular policy of mass inoculation by writing to inform Congress of his plan. Throughout February, Washington, with no precedent for the operation he was about to undertake, covertly communicated to his commanding officers orders to oversee mass inoculations of their troops in the model of Morristown and Philadelphia (Dr. Shippen’s Hospital). At least eleven hospitals had been constructed by the year’s end.”

This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that the healthcare providers in its system would be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. According to a press release by the VA:

“Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced he will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for Title 38 VA health care personnel — including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, expanded-function dental auxiliaries and chiropractors — who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities, visit VHA facilities or provide direct care to those VA serves.
VA is taking this necessary step to keep the Veterans it serves safe.
Each employee will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated.”

This week also, President Joe Biden announced that his Administration is requiring all federal employees and contractors attest to their vaccine status and, if they are unvaccinated, they will be required to wear masks, social distance, and submit to twice-weekly testing. Like George Washington did, President Biden has also instructed the military to find a way to include COVID-19 vaccination in the list of required vaccines for servicemembers. From the White House press release:

“Today, the President will announce that to help protect workers and their communities, every federal government employee and onsite contractor will be asked to attest to their vaccinatio

n status. Anyone who does not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel.

Today, the President will announce that he is directing the Department of Defense to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military. This is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world—many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent.”

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen