Vaccine mandates are an American tradition. George Washington required his troops to be inoculated for smallpox during the revolutionary war. “Necessity not only authorises but seems to require the measure,” he wrote to a doctor in Philadelphia in February 1777, “for should the disorder infect the army…we should have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy.” And schools have been obliging students to be vaccinated against diseases such as measles, rubella and tetanus for decades. Yet there have always been holdouts. A Gallup poll in 1954 found nearly a third of Americans said they would not take the new polio vaccine, with a slightly higher proportion opposed to vaccines for the H1N1 “swine” flu in 2009. 

Americans are similarly supportive of compulsory vaccinations for covid-19 today. A recent survey from the Covid States Project, a survey research consortium run out of a group of universities, including Northeastern, found that 64% of Americans approve of requiring vaccines for everyone. Slightly more support it for airline travel (the unvaccinated are at greater risk in confined spaces) and for students who want to attend university in person. Sixty-one per cent support obligatory vaccines for younger children before they return to in-person schooling. That survey was carried out in June and July, but a Gallup poll from August also found majority approval for compulsory shots for activities such as air travel, indoor dining and attending events with large crowds.

The new polls were published more or less as President Joe Biden announced, on Thursday, an executive order requiring all federal agencies and contractors, as well as health facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid, to mandate that workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Though the new rules are more expansive than most polls have previously probed, the States Project surveys indicate at least majority support for the move. Unofficial estimates indicate upwards of 100m Americans could be covered by the requirement.