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David Phoenix, 15, receives his COVID-19 vaccination as a group of John F. Kennedy High School student athletes got their COVID-19 vaccination in New Orleans on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Two buses brought 50 student athletes to CrescentCareÕs St. Roch location for the vaccine event. The school is hoping these students will act as ambassadors who will encourage other students to get vaccinated as well. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

To vaccinate or not has become the region’s gravest social dilemma.

Many in the Deep South are learning how to gingerly step around all the various excuses for not being vaccinated while handling family members who refuse to be around those who refuse to inoculate against COVID-19.

Plenty of reasons are being cited: Internet-based canards — vaccinations cause infertility; COVID-19 was overblown to defeat Donald Trump — “The same snakes that are selling the panic, are selling the cure”; Christian family values are being undermined — only 56% of White evangelical Protestants have agreed to take the shot, according to a poll released by The Hill last week. (White Catholics have a 79% acceptance rate.)

All of this threatens to turn an ordinary crab boil into a tension-filled, super-spreader event.

But the anti-vaccination atmosphere is changing.

President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered the 4 million people who draw federal paychecks to get vaccinated or face regular testing, setting an example for private employers. He’s also floating the idea of paying Americans $100 to get vaccinated.

Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, a state where only 39.9% have been fully vaccinated, said in Birmingham last week: “It’s the unvaccinated folks who are letting us down.” Her comments were praised by no less than U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who added, “There is bad advice out there, you know. Apparently, you see that all over the place: people practicing medicine without a license, giving bad advice. And that bad advice should be ignored.”

LSU and the other Louisiana public colleges, technical schools, and universities aren't prepared to mandate vaccinations. Health experts say the unvaccinated — and 71% of LSU students haven't taken the shot — are spreading the highly contagious delta variant to the point that Louisiana leads the nation in the rate of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Teachers and staffers, those most likely to suffer from an infection, are demanding students be vaccinated as a prerequisite for attendance. 

New to the job, LSU President William Tate’s first major pronouncement next week is likely to disappoint faculty and staff. As previewed for them Thursday, Tate said LSU lawyers had told him “it has become clear that there are significant challenges for a public university” in Louisiana to require vaccinations.

About 500 higher education schools nationwide — public and private — have mandated student vaccinations. One key difference between Louisiana and those others is that legislatures and elected officials in states like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, support mandating inoculations of students in their public institutions.

Louisiana’s politicians most definitely have not.

Gonzales Republican Rep. Kathy Edmonston, a former school board member, sponsored legislation, which passed overwhelmingly, to require equal access to state property and programs for the unvaccinated. She described her bills as bulwarks of individual freedom. Gov. John Bel Edwards, in his veto messages, described the wording as “dangerous” and “a back door through which vaccine requirements could be put in place” should the COVID-19 inoculations be fully authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Edmonston on July 13 told a group of Baton Rouge GOP activists that they must stop the move toward mandatory vaccination. “The number of kids that have been vaccinated against their will, it reminds me of the Nuremberg Code,” she said to applause, referring to principles concerning human medical experimentation set up after Nazi physicians were found guilty of barbaric procedures performed on prisoners.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, wrote LSU in June that he opposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates for a variety of legal reasons and because some people held religious beliefs that generally are against taking any vaccines and specifically are against enriching companies that also sell abortion products.

“Right now, given all those things, we just don’t see that as a viable option,” said Winston DeCuir Jr., LSU general counsel, the "that" being mandatory vaccinations at LSU. He was talking at a town hall that LSU President Tate held Thursday with university faculty, staff, and administrators.

One professor after the meeting opined, “There's a lot of disappointment with Tate among faculty members who hoped that, as an outsider and an epidemiologist, he might break through LSU's timid lawyer-driven management and be a voice of reason in a state that needs more of them.”


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.