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Connecting the Classroom to the Real World: The Bioethics of COVID-19 with Dr. Mike Rolfsen

How often do students get to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world applications in real time? How often are students taught by leaders sought out to address uncharted and complex problems in their field? Well, last semester Honors students in LSU philosophy professor Dr. Mike Rolfsen’s honors seminar on medical bioethics experienced just that. 

Medicine is not always equitable or just. COVID-19 has further exposed disparities in healthcare and the moral and ethical challenges public officials face as they try to mitigate the effects of the virus. 

In July 2020, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) Office of Public Health (OPH) devised the Vaccine Action Collaborative (VAC), which includes a wide representation of professionals from both public and private sectors, to coordinate and update planning and response efforts for the allocation, distribution and dispensing of COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Rolfsen serves as the co-chairman of the Prioritization and Allocation Committee, which is responsible for determining who the limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines will be distributed to once released. 

Dr. Rolfsen’s background is in bioethics — the study of the ethical issues emerging from advances in biology and medicine. “Bioethics is important because it helps us make these difficult decisions,” says Rolfsen. “Not simply in the pandemic, but in all public health matters including the many difficult things we have to decide as a society.”

Bioethics covers so many issues in medicine from abortion and assisted suicide to healthcare reform to human enhancement. Surprisingly, most physicians do not have good training or a specialized understanding of bioethics although it seems to be improving as time goes on. 

Wide-scale vaccine distribution is no easy feat. The biggest ethical challenge that has come up for Dr. Rolfsen and his committee is that so much is unknown about both the disease and the vaccine. He stands by the mantra “good ethics begins with good facts,” and the facts around COVID-19 have been unclear since the start of the pandemic, making it much harder to make ethical decisions.  

Nonetheless, the committee decided on a utilitarian approach in trying to achieve the most good for the most people. To that end, it appears that healthcare workers will receive the first vaccine shipment in order to ensure their ability to continue to work to help the rest of society as we navigate the pandemic.

Throughout the semester, Dr. Rolfsen’s students also worked through similar case studies and dilemmas. Pre-med student Jack Green explored the topic of mandatory vaccinations. “We were asked to weigh in on making an HPV vaccine required for entry into middle or high schools. Through research, discussions, and ethical argumentation, my group decided that compulsory vaccines are both legal and ethical,” says Green.   

While vaccine distribution is one of many ethical issues presented to society due to COVID, Dr. Rolfsen wants people to remember that “good ethics begin with good facts,” and he hopes his students take with them the ability to look at all sides of an issue and compromise on ethical decisions between conflicting values in any instance.