A bill barring state and local government agencies from requiring COVID-19 vaccines — including public schools and universities — is heading to Gov. Bill Lee's desk after it passed the Tennessee General Assembly last week.
State officials have consistently stated they have no intent of mandating COVID-19 vaccines, and the Tennessee Department of Health recommends that private employers do not require them as long as the vaccines are operating under the federal Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization rather than full FDA approval.
However, the Republican sponsors of the bill said that their motivation for bringing it forward was that their constituents feared the possibility of future COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The new law would mean that even once the COVID-19 vaccines achieve full FDA approval, public schools and other government agencies can't require them as they do many other widely used vaccines that prevent a range of infectious diseases, such as polio and measles, mumps and rubella.
Government-run hospitals and health care facilities would still be able to require that their employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 under the new rule, but federal law allows exemptions to those requirements for people who cannot receive vaccines for documented medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs.
The new law would still allow COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students pursuing health professions at public higher education institutions who may be required to take a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of completing their clinical coursework at outside medical facilities.
The bill also adds new language around vaccine exemptions by including the phrase "right of conscience" as a reason to opt out of a COVID-19 vaccination, as well as removes the class C misdemeanor for those who refuse other required vaccines. Pediatric advocates said those changes will open the door to more exemptions to important childhood immunizations, which state health officials said last month were already falling behind because of the pandemic.
The bill was opposed by several health and industry groups, including the Tennessee Public Health Association, and drew bipartisan support as well as criticism. Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally was the most notable Republican to vote against the bill.
Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville — who is a physician — said that although he agrees that COVID-19 vaccines should not be mandated at this time, he voted against the bill because Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma — who sponsored the companion bill in the Senate — cited misinformation in her arguments, including that vaccine requirements are unconstitutional.
"It's not unconstitutional for the state to say that you need certain vaccines, and now in this case, I think it's a solution looking for a problem," Briggs said. "I don't know a single official in the state that's advocating for COVID vaccine requirements."
Legal precedent for vaccine requirements was established in 1905 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said that the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, could fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections. The ruling has been upheld in subsequent cases finding that individual liberty does not supersede the health and well-being of the masses.
Rep Sabi "Doc" Kumar, R-Springfield, who is also a physician, expressed concern throughout the monthslong debate over the bill, saying that it creates an "anti-vaccine attitude" and sets a dangerous precedent for future disease outbreaks, but he ultimately voted in the bill's favor.
All members of Hamilton County's legislative delegation voted in favor of the bill except for Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who abstained. Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, voted for the bill, but later told the Times Free Press that he was distracted and didn't mean to vote yes.
"I erred on that vote, and that's where I am on that. It was not consistent with where I stand on that bill," Hakeem said. "I allowed myself to be doing more than one thing at once."
Gardenhire said that he abstained because he believes people should be able to choose whether they want to take a COVID-19 vaccine, but that he "didn't think the bill was a good bill."
"Not to say it wasn't a good idea, but the bill was flawed," Gardenhire said. "I try to vote on what the bill says, not the concept of the bill, and I was convinced that there would be some very unintended consequences of that bill."
Rep Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said she supports the bill based on feedback she received from constituents and because "it's a COVID vaccine only bill."
"Based on the information received in my office, they were wanting the option to take the vaccines or not," Smith said. "Because this is operating under emergency use authorization, it should be voluntary. Once these things receive their FDA approval, I think that we're going to learn that they're going to be much more like the flu vaccine."
Similar to Smith, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he supported the bill because it only applied to COVID-19 vaccines and because the vaccines aren't fully FDA approved.
"While the vaccine is incredibly safe and effective, it still has not gone through the normal vaccine channels," Watson said, adding that he is "not concerned" about the future consequences of the bill.
"I think that as the vaccine permeates through society, people will get very comfortable with it, and you won't see the kind of opposition that you see today," he said. "I work in health care. I encourage people to be vaccinated. I've been vaccinated."
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