State lawmakers opposed to COVID vaccine mandates have filed a flurry of bills this session. Some worry about the message they send.

INDIANAPOLIS — As the federal government works to make COVID-19 vaccines available to all Americans, lawmakers in more than 40 states have introduced legislation that would forbid mandates requiring people get vaccinated.

Often advanced by vaccine skeptics and sponsored by Republicans, most seek to prohibit businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or limit school and daycare vaccination entry requirements.

Although most of the bills have gained little support and few if any are expected to become law, the efforts reveal a new alliance between long-time opponents of vaccines and groups opposed to COVID-19 public health measures, say vaccine advocates.

“Starting at the beginning of the pandemic, the anti-vaxxers did a wonderful job of pivoting from anti-vax to anti-mask and anti-lockdown, and essentially anti-government,” said Erica DeWald, director of strategic communication with Vaccinate Your Family, a vaccine advocacy organization founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter. 

Sponsors of such measures say it’s a question of freedom of choice. They object to any requirement a person be vaccinated in order to work or enter venues like sports arenas or music events, arguing to do so would be government overreach.

“It goes back to personal liberties,” said Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. He and others argue businesses or the government shouldn’t be telling people what to put in their bodies.

Indiana Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, said a state mandate that people take the COVID-19 vaccine would be a “gross violation of the individual freedom of Hoosiers.”

Indiana Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, said a state mandate that people take the COVID-19 vaccine would be a “gross violation of the individual freedom of Hoosiers.”
Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar

A bill he authored would have prevented companies from mandating any vaccination, including those protecting against COVID-19, due to a person’s religious beliefs or “conscience.”

After Kruse’s bill stalled in committee, state Rep. Brad Barrett, R-Richmond, introduced an amendment to a different bill prohibiting businesses from asking members of the public their vaccination status. He argued the vaccine is too new to be mandated. The amendment was thrown out without a vote.

“This vaccine is still (under) emergency use authorization,” Barrett said. “The science is still pending. The vaccine has really only been in use since December.”

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In an eleventh-hour move last week, Indiana lawmakers inserted language into another unrelated insurance bill the would forbid the state and municipal governments from requiring “vaccination passports” or proof of COVID-19 vaccination.  

“The thought of a state mandating that people take a vaccine that is still experimental according to the manufacturers of the vaccine would be considered a gross violation of the individual freedom of Hoosiers,” said Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis. 

Business and medical groups have opposed attempts to outlaw vaccination requirements, saying they threaten employers’ legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace and could put workers and customers at risk.

In Indiana, the measures were opposed by the state Chamber of Commerce, health care groups and public health experts.

Such opposition hasn’t stopped efforts there, or elsewhere. Statehouses in Alabama, Florida, MarylandTennessee and Wisconsin all have bills circulating that would ban businesses or the government from requiring proof of vaccination or immunity.

In Kansas, legislators have packaged together a series of controversial vaccine-related measures. The sweeping bill would prevent employers from requiring employees be immunized against COVID-19 and would shield businesses from lawsuits in the event an employee becomes infectious.

While no COVID-19 vaccine is currently authorized for children younger than 16, the bill also would ban state health officials from requiring new vaccinations to attend daycare centers and schools. The power instead would be given to the legislature.

During a hearing last week, Kansas state Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, said “long-term dangers won’t be known for decades” from the COVID-19 vaccine. He called the shots “experimental.”

Kansas Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, said "long-term dangers won't be known for decades" from the COVID-19 vaccine. He called the shots “experimental.”

Kansas Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, said “long-term dangers won’t be known for decades” from the COVID-19 vaccine. He called the shots “experimental.”
Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal

“Used appropriately, vaccines are a great, great thing. As a physician, I have recommended them to many individuals,” Steffen said. “I have never once mandated a treatment.”

In Missouri, a proposed bill would require immunizations only for public school children and would make exemptions easier.

“We need to rein in our schools and our health departments,” said Rep. Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon.

Employment concerns

The largest number of the bills ban private employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment – an issue coming to the forefront with nearly 54% of American adults vaccinated as of Monday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

U.S. workers appear to be split on whether companies should require vaccinations. Forty-nine percent of working Americans agreed employers should require proof of vaccination before allowing employees to return to the workplace, according to a survey this month by public opinion firm Ipsos.

“Another sticky issue for employers is how to handle employees who choose to remain unvaccinated,” said Melissa Jezior, president and CEO of  Eagle Hill Consulting, which commissioned the survey. “Should they be permitted to interact in-person with colleagues and customers or be given special allowances to work from home?”

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One-third of workers said non-vaccinated employees shouldn’t be allowed to work in-person with co-workers.

Lawmakers in 40 states take steps to ban COVID-19 vaccine requirements

Lawmakers in over 40 states have taken steps to prohibit businesses from requiring employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Staff Video, USA TODAY

Such requirements are allowed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In December the commission announced employers could require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as long as they did not violate the Americans with Disabilities and the Civil Rights acts.

The bills being proposed by state lawmakers are partly in response to the commission’s finding. However, overall vaccine requirements haven’t yet become a major employment issue.

Prior to COVID, few businesses outside of hospitals and health care settings required workers to be immunized. Even now only a handful of employers, mostly nursing homes, have required COVID-19 vaccination.

Only one case of an employee refusing to be vaccinated, in New Mexico, has been filed so far, said Sam Halabi, a professor of law at the University of Missouri and a scholar at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

New laws aren’t needed, Halabi said, because few employees are fighting new COVID vaccination requirements and most states already have existing laws that allow people to easily opt out. 

“If you really don’t want to take a vaccine, your ability to say, ‘I refuse to on the basis of my conscience’ is really prevalent,” he said.

Public health politicized

Legislation allowing people, especially children, to opt-out of vaccination is routinely proposed and often passed in state legislatures, especially in more conservative states. What’s been different about the surge in COVID-19 vaccine bills is the new coalition they represent.

“This has a whole different feel,” said Diane Peterson, associate director for immunization projects at the non-profit Immunization Action Coalition, a non-profit that works with the CDC to distribute information about vaccines.

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The anti-vaccine movement has “melded with the anti-mask, anti-lockdown folks. They’re coming out more as the mainstream because they’ve joined forces with other extreme anti-science groups,” said Becky Christensen, of the SAFE Communities Coalition, which advocates for pro-science legislation and counters anti-vaccination candidates.

She emphasized not everyone with concerns or hesitation about the COVID-19 vaccine is opposed to vaccination in general.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law
While we have a long history of states regulating business, it’s usually regulation to improve the public health, not to undermine it.

“We’re talking about a lot of people that are truly hesitant right now versus people that are outside of a capitol with a bullhorn saying, ‘Vaccines are going to kill your children.’”

As common has they have been this legislative session, none of the vaccination bills have so far passed and few are expected to, said Jennifer Laudano, senior director of communications and community engagement at the National Academy for State Health Policy.

“Legislative sessions are ending, so a lot of these bills will die when they adjourn,” said Laudano, whose non-partisan, non-profit group supports states in developing health policies.

Registered nurse Amy Wells draws a shot of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine in the pharmacy of National Jewish Hospital for distribution early Saturday, March 6, 2021, in east Denver.

Registered nurse Amy Wells draws a shot of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in the pharmacy of National Jewish Hospital for distribution early Saturday, March 6, 2021, in east Denver.
David Zalubowski, AP

Had they passed, they almost certainly would have been upheld by the courts, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law and an expert on policy responses to vaccination questions.

States have wide latitude to regulate businesses, though these bills run counter to most such regulations, she said.

“While we have a long history of states regulating business, it’s usually regulation to improve the public health, not to undermine it,” said Reiss. 

Those who support vaccination say even if none of the bills pass, they allow dangerous mistruths to be repeated.

On Thursday, during a debate on the Montana Senate floor, state Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, cited the false claim computer chips being inserted with vaccines.

In a local television interview on April 5, New Jersey state Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, said the coronavirus vaccines don’t prevent COVID-19 or keep it from spreading. He also said that COVID-19 had a 99.8% survival rate.

None of these statements are true. Among unvaccinated people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, about 20% will end up with severe disease, 5% will end up in intensive care and between 1 and 2% will die, according to CDC data. 

Of the first 75 million Americans to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, only 5,800 had breakthrough infections. Of those, 74 died.

Clips of such false statements are frequently shared on social media by anti-vaccine groups and used to promote vaccine hesitancy.

“Elected officials are in a position of trust and they’re validating people’s fears,” said Christensen, whose organization promotes pro-science legislation. “They’re increasing mistrust in public health.” 

Contact Weise at eweise@usatoday.com

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