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The Editorial Board: Legislature should give Hochul authority to require vaccinations in state schools

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As the state and country cope with a lack of workers for millions of job openings, the combination of rising Covid infections and formal approval of the Pfizer vaccine leaves some 20 million New Yorkers lacking a critical position: a governor able to make urgent decisions quickly.

It’s why the State Legislature – unused and unequipped to taking swift action – needs to vest Gov. Kathy Hochul with the authority previously given to Andrew Cuomo. She may not need it as long as her predecessor had it, but she needs it now.

Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash implied as much in a meeting last week with The News Editorial Board. While he implemented a mask mandate for city schools before Hochul announced a similar statewide requirement, he said he is unwilling to implement a vaccine mandate on his own authority. We’d be content if he did – employers have the right to make those decisions – but it’s not unwise for him to look for higher authority over so sensitive a matter in a public entity.

So, for the sake of Buffalo students, teachers, staff and their families and friends – as well as those in every other New York school district – the state needs to act. Unless the Legislature is going to come back into session before the school year starts and deal with this matter legislatively, it needs to confer emergency powers on Hochul to allow her to act in the interest of all New Yorkers. In education and in health care, vaccines should be required. Hochul needs the authority to make that happen.

Some have argued that such a mandate was inappropriate while vaccines were authorized only for emergency use. That was initially the case with all three of the vaccines in use in this country, as their initial evaluations showed tremendous effectiveness and no broad risk of serious side effects. Without their emergency authorization, the country’s Covid death count would have been far higher than the 635,000 killed so far. Even with the vaccines, experts say another 100,000 deaths are possible before the end of this year unless many more people are immunized.

But circumstances changed this month when the Food and Drug Administration gave its full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That makes it just like other vaccines – for mumps, measles, pertussis, polio, chicken pox and more – that are required before children can attend school. In defense of public health, the state even eliminated the religious exemption that allowed some unvaccinated children to go to school.

The same should be true for the fully authorized Covid-19 vaccine. It’s effective. It’s safe. And while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a different technology, known as mRNA, the technology, itself, isn’t new. It has been studied and developed over more than 30 years.

Vaccine mandates are spreading. With the full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the Pentagon is requiring vaccinations for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops. United Airlines says its employees will soon have to show proof of vaccination. Hospitals, colleges, corporations and other organizations are following suit.

As younger people are being sickened by the more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus and lagging vaccination rates open the door to new mutations of the virus, it’s time to mandate the Covid-19 vaccine for all who enter school buildings. As Cash said on Thursday, one of any school’s fundamental tasks is to keep children safe.

New York State needs to take the lead on that and, almost surely, that requires giving Hochul the authority.

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A universal mask mandate will be imposed by the state on all public and private schools as students get to return to classes in the coming weeks, and officials are looking at ways to mandate vaccines for school employees, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Tuesday on her first day in office.

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