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House rejects school vaccine requirement

Edwards could push plan through anyway
Caleb Daniel
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
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Rep. Chris Turner, R-Ruston, questions Dr. Joseph Kanter (center at table) and other Louisiana Department of Health officials about the department's proposed rule change that would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for Louisiana schools, with exemptions.

A committee of Louisiana legislators voted on Monday to reject a plan from the state health department that would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for some grade school students, but Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to veto the decision and move forward with the plan starting next school year.

The House of Representatives Health and Welfare Committee held a roughly 8-hour hearing featuring hundreds of public comments largely opposing the vaccine requirement, ultimately voting 13-2 to strike it down.

Like other immunizations that are already required in public schools, families would be able to submit either a doctor’s notice or a simple written dissent to be exempted from receiving the vaccine.

The requirement would only apply to age groups for whom the FDA has given full approval of the vaccine, which is currently ages 16 and up, though that could widen.

Among those voting against the vaccine requirement was Ruston’s Rep. Chris Turner, a Republican and vice chair of the committee.

Turner and several of his colleagues questioned Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state’s top health official, and other Louisiana Department of Health representatives about their ability to push the vaccine requirement without legislative approval.

“It leaves us out of the loop,” Turner said.

The LDH officials pointed to three state statutes that appear to cede the department the power to set the schedule of required immunizations.

Many lawmakers, both on the committee and not, testified against the requirement during the hearing. Some said they are vaccinated but oppose mandates, while others questioned the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

“The vaccine is new — it was rushed,” Turner said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation about the vaccine and misinformation about COVID.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was among the first to testify at the hearing and claimed Edwards and the LDH don’t have the authority to push a vaccine requirement without the Legislature’s support.

The Associated Press reported Edwards still plans to move forward with the change to the immunization schedule, and the issue could end up in court.

Some opponents of the requirement at the hearing claimed the COVID-19 vaccine is different from those already on the schedule because it’s not fully effective at stopping the spread of the disease.

“I am not an anti-vaccine person,” Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder said. “(Other vaccines) prevent the disease. That is not what the COVID vaccine shot does. It is not the same as other vaccinations and should not be treated as such.”

Kanter said that of the halfdozen other immunizations on the schedule, only smallpox and polio have largely been eradicated, and the other diseases still see breakthrough cases, particularly mumps.

Kanter also tried to address the repeated billing of this requirement as “government overreach” and a breach of freedom by emphasizing the exemption options in place.

“A student or family who does not want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine… would remain free to make that choice for themselves,” he said.

Some legislators noted that LDH rules seem to indicate that school districts could potentially bar students who seek exemptions rather than immunization from attending in-person learning. Kanter said the LDH does not plan to pursue that course of action.

If the vaccine is added to the schedule, it would go into effect in the fall of 2022. Local school districts would be required to report the number of vaccinated students and the number of exemptions to the LDH starting in November 2022.

The latest COVID absence figures from the Lincoln Parish School District show just six students out with positive cases of the virus across the parish on Tuesday, along with 24 others quarantining due to possible exposure.

The figures continue to compare favorably to those reported during the height of the Delta variant surge near the beginning of the school year, when a given day could see as many as 300 students absent with COVID cases or exposures.