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Louisiana Lawmakers Aim To Ban COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates For Public Universities And Government Agencies

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Phoebe Jones
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WWNO
A vaccinator administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. March 4, 2021.

Faculty at Louisiana State University overwhelmingly want one thing when students return in August: mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. But under a proposed law nearing passage at the legislature this week, that could end up being illegal in the state.

College students and school-aged children are already required by law to be vaccinated against measles, polio, hepatitis B and a handful of other highly contagious viruses.

Last month, about 90 percent of faculty at LSU voted to require COVID-19 shots, too.

“I am worried about faculty who maybe aren't as healthy as I am. I'm worried about students who may maybe aren't as healthy as I am,” said Robert Mann, a professor of communications at LSU and one of those pushing for a vaccine mandate.

LSU’s Mann is worried, too, about more contagious strains of the coronavirus.

“The strain from India, which seems to be just burning through places like the UK right now, that will eventually find its way onto campuses like LSU,” he said.

Other schools in the region are requiring students to be vaccinated for the fall, including Tulane, Dillard and Xavier. In fact, roughly 400 schools across the country are mandating vaccinations, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But come August, required COVID-19 vaccines for public colleges and universities could be against the law in Louisiana under a bill expected to be approved this week by the Republican-led state-house; the bill now heads to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, who has not commented on the legislation.

GOP Lawmakers Pitt Vaccine Mandates Against Individual Rights

The battle over vaccine mandates is just the latest example of how politics has shaped — even dominated — Louisiana’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is about discrimination,” said Rep. Kathy Edmonston of Ascension Parish and author of HB 498.

The measure would prohibit government agencies and officials from distinguishing between people based on whether they’ve been vaccinated against any virus, not just SARS-CoV-2, the strain of the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. The only exceptions are those vaccinations already required by law.

Governors and legislators in over a dozen other states are pushing similar bans. They’re part of a movement that sees the push for COVID-19 vaccinations as an affront to individual rights.

Edmonston, a Republican, said she’d heard from students and employees who didn’t want to be vaccinated and didn’t want to lose out on jobs or school opportunities as a result.

Louisiana as a whole is the second-least vaccinated state in the nation. And in Edmonston’s district, Ascension Parish, vaccination rates lag even below the state average.

Edmonston said she did not feel a responsibility to help boost vaccine uptake in the state.

“That's not a goal of mine. No, ma'am,” she said. “The goal that I have is to — that's why I brought forward the legislation — prohibit discrimination based on vaccine or immunity status. That's my number one goal.”

The proposed law is supported by a group launched last year amid the pandemic called Health Freedom Louisiana. Jill Hines, the co-director, said the group doesn’t oppose or support vaccinations but stands strongly against requiring COVID-19 vaccines, which Hines called an “experimental drug.” She raised concerns about the vaccines' impact on fertility, but there is no evidence nor any indication that any vaccine — including the COVID-19 vaccines — has any impact on fertility, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health Freedom Louisiana also challenged the state’s mask mandate, something Hines said, when applied to children, would have been a “cause for great concern” before the pandemic.

“I'm not a huge fan of groupthink. I'm not a huge fan of not questioning the government,” she said.

Health Freedom Louisiana helped Edmonston on a separate bill that passed the statehouse and would ban vaccine status from drivers’ licenses — it’s now headed for the governor’s signature. Edmonston also wrote a House resolution to publicize Louisiana’s exemptions from state-required vaccinations. All you need is a letter stating a health concern or a philosophical or religious objection, no further explanation is required and you can forgo any mandated shot.

Lawmakers passed another anti-vaccine bill by Rep. Danny McCormick, a Republican, that protects businesses from civil liability if they don’t mandate COVID-19 vaccines, and bars government agencies from denying permits or licenses based on whether an entity has instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The laws are the latest example of GOP-led opposition to public health efforts that experts say are needed to curb the pandemic’s death toll and impact, such as lockdowns and vaccine mandates.

Hines with Health Freedom Louisiana said she rejects a core premise of public health: That we can and should work to improve the collective health of our community, especially in a pandemic.

“That whole idea that I owe anyone anything in regards to their health, where does that end?” she asked. “That's a very communistic idea.”

A Long History Of Vaccine Mandates

But required immunizations are actually an American idea.

“We've been mandating vaccines for decades,” said Walter Orenstein.

Orenstein is the associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, and for 16 years — from 1980 to 2004 — he was at the Centers for Disease Control where he led the United States Immunization Program, considered by medical experts to be an undisputed success.

Since that program began in 1962, polio has been eliminated in the US and many other vaccine-preventable diseases are at record or near record lows.

“In fact, we had a presidential initiative in 1977 on immunization, which focused on getting states to enact and enforce comprehensive school laws for immunization for kids entering school,” Orenstein said.

Government immunization programs are about community as well as individual protection, he added. High levels of immunization in a population protect those who can’t get a shot for health reasons and even those who choose not to do so.

Vaccine laws are among many that prioritize public good over individual rights, Orenstein said.

“We have laws that don't allow drinking and driving. We have speed limits, again, it not only protects the driver but decreases the risk of accidents,” he said.

Vaccine conspiracy theories, prevalent on social media, have been parried even at the legislature, where some lawmakers have questioned the vaccines’ safety. Many point to the fact that COVID-19 vaccines remain under “Emergency Use Authorization” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

According to Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, the “emergency use” designation bars any COVID-19 vaccine mandate at LSU.

Orenstein said the newness of the vaccines does make this immunization effort different.

Even so, emergency use was created to respond to a public health emergency like the coronavirus pandemic as a way to fast-track life-saving medical care. And it is short-lived: Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are currently awaiting full FDA approval, a process that’s expected to take a few months.

Edmonston’s law — if signed by Edwards — would ban COVID-19 mandates at publicly-funded institutions even if or when COVID-19 vaccines are fully approved. In fact, it would ban any vaccine mandate for a virus that might erupt across the state in the future.

“A Superspreader Event”

Javin Bowman, the student government president at LSU, said the culture on campus mirrors that of the state, with some students stridently for a vaccine mandate, and others ardently opposed.

A mandate “would be nice to have,” he said. “But just being realistic, it's just probably not going to happen.”

Meredith Veldman teaches history at LSU, where the typical lecture hall features 150 to 200 tightly packed desks, low ceilings and locked windows. She pictures them packed with students, less than a quarter of whom are vaccinated.

“It seems to me that it is a setting for a superspreader event,” she said.

If a mandate isn’t put in place, faculty are calling for mask-wearing and social distancing, something LSU’s administration has said will continue.

But Veldman said she’d been told that social distancing isn’t the plan for actual classes. She’s been told they’ll be at 100 percent capacity.

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