COVID controversy: Lawmakers try to block vaccine requirement for La. students

Published 8:18 pm Monday, December 6, 2021

A bipartisan group of Louisiana lawmakers Monday voted against Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus vaccine requirement for some students, but the Democratic governor intends to overrule the rejection and add the shot to the immunization schedule starting next school year.

The fate of the plan seems likely to be decided by the courts, with Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and the Edwards administration at odds over whether the vaccine requirement can be legally enacted by the governor without support from the full Legislature.

The House Health and Welfare Committee objected to the requirement in a 13-2 decision. All GOP lawmakers voted in opposition along with an independent and three Democrats. Only Democratic Reps. Dustin Miller of Opleousas and Robby Carter of St. Helena Parish supported adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the state’s immunization schedule for schools.

The Edwards administration said the vote can’t legally stop the governor from enacting the regulation.

Edwards “supports adding the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to the immunization schedule and, barring a recommendation from public health experts, his opinion would not change,” the governor’s spokesperson Christina Stephens said in a statement.

Even if the shots are mandated for Louisiana schools, the state allows broad exemptions for parents and students to opt out by submitting a written objection from a doctor or a general written dissent.

Across a daylong hearing, opponents of the regulation described the vaccine requirement as government overreach.

Some downplayed the threat of COVID-19 to children and repeated misinformation suggesting widespread risks from the vaccine. Others said while they believe in vaccines, they thought it was too soon to require the coronavirus immunization until there was more long-term study. Some said natural immunity from contracting COVID-19 was enough to keep from needing a vaccine, even though infectious disease experts disagree.

“I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m anti-vaccine mandate,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, a Mandeville Republican. “Is this really about controlling the virus anymore, or is this about controlling the citizens?”

Lawmakers worried children could be excluded from in-person classes if they file the exemption paperwork, even though the Louisiana Department of Health said it doesn’t intend to push the exclusion of unvaccinated children from school. The lawmakers — several of whom said they are vaccinated — said parents should get to make decisions about the shots their children receive.

“Parents should not be forced to jump through hoops,” said House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican. He said he doesn’t believe the Edwards administration has the authority to add the coronavirus vaccine to the schedule of immunizations required to attend school.

Miller said parents will get the choice they want.

“I think we’re simply allowing parents to sign paperwork” if they don’t want to comply, he said.

Edwards’ chief public health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, pushed back against suggestions that COVID-19 isn’t a significant threat to children, that the vaccines are experimental and that they shouldn’t be added to the immunization schedule because they don’t keep someone from getting infected.

“Vaccines are the single best tool we have to fight back,” he said. “We need to encourage and promote their use while continuing to respect the tradition of parental autonomy which has served us well in Louisiana to date.”

Students in Louisiana are required to be immunized against certain diseases before attending K-12 schools, daycare centers and colleges, and lawmakers have delegated some of the responsibility about what’s on the list to the health department.

If it takes effect, the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement would only apply to age groups for whom the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given full approval of the immunization. Currently, that’s high school students 16 and older. But that would broaden to cover younger children if the FDA grants full backing to the shots for more age groups.

Already, many of Louisiana’s colleges have begun requiring the vaccine — or an exemption request.

Monday’s hearing was packed with hundreds of parents opposed to the vaccination rule and with Republican lawmakers who don’t sit on the committee but wanted to speak in opposition. Landry appeared with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has promoted debunked claims about the vaccine.