(INDIANAPOLIS) – A marathon statehouse hearing has set the stage for an expected Monday vote on a bill to clamp limits on private vaccine requirements.
The bill would require employers who make the vaccine mandatory to honor requests for religious or medical exemptions. It would ban vaccine requirements entirely at schools or state universities, including Indiana University, which already requires students and staff to get the shot.
In a seven-hour hearing before a joint House and Senate committee, business and medical groups warned the bill will discourage vaccinations. Clinton County health officer Stephen Tharp, representing the Indiana State Medical Association, says doctors are as frustrated by the long pandemic as everyone else, but says to end it, Indiana should be striving to vaccinate as many Hoosiers as possible. Instead, he predicts the bill would prolong the pandemic, damaging not just Hoosiers’ health but the economy, the health care system, and all aspects of society.
Indiana Chamber president Kevin Brinegar says he believes “the entire business community” is against the bill. Indiana Manufacturers Association senior vice president Andrew Berger says his group opposes limiting vaccine mandates for the same reason it opposes President Biden’s push to impose one. He argues neither state nor federal government should be telling businesses how to operate because they’re ill-equipped to make necessary distinctions between different companies, or even within a single company.
Gynecologist Caroline Rouse singled out a provision specifying that pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy is grounds for a medical exemption. The Centers for Disease Control explicitly recommends vaccination for both those groups, and Rouse says pregnant women are 22 times more likely to die of COVID if infected.
Several witnesses supporting the bill point out vaccinated people have gotten sick or died as well, and contend there’s no basis for treating unvaccinated people differently. More than 66,000 Hoosiers have tested positive despite being fully vaccinated, but unvaccinated Hoosiers have been seven times more likely to catch the virus. Since July, nine out of 10 hospitalizations and four out of five deaths have been unvaccinated.
Other backers of the bill argue vaccine requirements infringe on their right to make their own decisions — some contend the bill doesn’t go far enough, because it fails to ban vaccine mandates entirely. And a string of Ascension St. Vincent Hospital nurses testified the hospital suspended them after rejecting their requests for religious exceptions. Student nurse intern Tina Riffey argues she should be able to care for patients without having to turn her back on her beliefs.
Governor Holcomb announced last week he’d end the state’s 20-month emergency declaration if legislators changed state law to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars in extra Medicaid and food stamp funding, and made permanent an executive order expansion of who can administer COVID vaccinations. Democrats joined Republicans for the first time in endorsing those changes, but House Majority Leader Phil GiaQuinta (D-Fort Wayne) accused legislative Republicans of “holding federal benefits hostage” by stuffing the vaccine limits into the bill. And Holcomb himself has said he has “concerns” about the vaccine restrictions, and has declined to say whether he’d sign the bill if it passes in its current form.
Tharp argued it’s still too soon to end the emergency, and Democrats haven’t taken a position on doing so. But Democrats challenged Republicans’ push to suspend usual legislative procedures and ram the bill through in a single day on Monday. Anderson Representative Terri Austin (D) says it’s “arrogant” for legislators to assume they’ve anticipated any unintended consequences. House Majority Leader Matt Lehman (R-Berne) responds delaying until the traditional January start of the session would mean dozens of workers get fired in the meantime.