The partisan divide over the country's pandemic response has reinvigorated the anti-vaccine movement nationwide, with mostly Republican lawmakers in nearly 40 states backing bills to restrict Covid-19 vaccine mandates or vaccine passports.
Anti-vaccine fervor that was previously concentrated in specific communities — like Orthodox Jews in New Jersey and New York, and Somali immigrants in Minnesota — spread more widely during the pandemic as the U.S. government urged people to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
At least six states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah — have enacted legislation to limit Covid shot mandates, giving vaccine opponents some of their most prominent victories in recent memory. At least 11 states have banned the use of vaccine passports, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, and another 31 states at minimum are considering similar legislation.
The wave of opposition to Covid-19 shots, and efforts to curb public-health authorities more generally, have alarmed health experts. They say the new legislation will make it harder to quell the pandemic and prevent future outbreaks of Covid-19 and other illnesses. Many families now emerging from isolation have delayed routine immunizations during the pandemic, and two dozen states have dispensed Covid-19 shots to fewer than 50 percent of eligible residents.
“We're very concerned about that because it really undermines everything we do," said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. "And things I think the public take for granted for safety" — such as health departments' ability to react quickly to outbreaks of food- and waterborne-illnesses — "are not going to be so safe anymore.”
The anti-vaccine movement saw an opportunity at the pandemic’s onset to bring more people into the fold by shifting its message from the shots themselves to governments’ often-unpopular promotion of masks and social distancing, said Erica DeWald, director of strategic communications and partnerships at Vaccinate Your Family, a vaccine education group co-founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
“This is the first time that they’ve been able to attach themselves to an issue that has successfully passed,” she said.
The efforts have taken hold in states like Texas and Oklahoma, where anti-vaccine political action committees have grown in power and influence in recent years. The Republican governors of Arkansas and Montana already have signed into law measures ensuring Covid-19 vaccination status can’t be made a condition of employment in certain settings. Other governors and legislatures have banned the use of “vaccine passports” for travel or other services, despite the Biden administration’s vow not to pursue a national document.
Many of the latest laws and executive orders focus on preventing public agencies from denying jobs or services to people based on their immunization status. But Florida went even further, preventing businesses — along with government agencies and schools — from requiring customers to prove they’re vaccinated against, or have recovered from, Covid-19.
Hundreds of vaccine-related bills are usually introduced in state houses each legislative session, said Tahra Johnson, program director for public health and maternal and child health at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many focus on creating or expanding exemptions to school inoculation requirements or eliminating such exemptions.
This year there are even more bills “due to the additional Covid-19 vaccine bills and a focus on adults,” she said.
Mary Holland, president and general counsel at Children's Health Defense, an anti-vaccine group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., said the bills that have advanced this year "hold the line" against new mandates for shots that have yet to receive full FDA licensure, rather than emergency authorization. The three vaccines in use in the United States have all been cleared on an emergency basis, though the FDA is expected to soon give full approval to the shot from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.
“Saying that freedom is conditional on vaccine status is obviously unprecedented," she said.
The anti-vaccine movement was historically split between factions of the political left and right. But former President Donald Trump's rhetoric downplaying Covid's severity, claims of government overreach by mask and lockdown protesters, and the varied arguments vaccine opponents deploy all "plugged it very directly into the very polarized political discourse we have now," said Jonathan Berman, a scientist who's written a book on the anti-vaccine movement.
That's contributed to a stark partisan divide in the nation's vaccination effort, with 88 percent of Democrats polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation saying they already have or are planning to get the shot, compared with 50 percent of Republicans. Meanwhile, 27 percent of Republicans say they "definitely" won't get it, compared with 3 percent of Democrats.
Those arguments seeped into conservative media outlets like Fox News, leading some state Republican legislators to adopt them, said Dorit Reiss, a vaccine law expert at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
“The anti-vaccine people create the arguments, but they’re not the ones that can get the bill passed," she said. “It’s a really strange alliance.”
Many state legislatures have already adjourned for the year or will later this month. It's unclear whether similar measures will be introduced once they reconvene. But some states have already adopted major changes to public-health policies through legislation.
“We are standing at the precipice of reopening society and causing an epidemic on the heels of a pandemic," said DeWald.
In Kentucky, the GOP-controlled legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's veto of bills to limit the amount of time for which he could declare a state of emergency and to give legislators more control over those powers. A judge blocked the laws' implementation, and the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the issue Thursday.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly faced similar efforts in Kansas to limit her emergency authority; she ultimately signed compromise legislation restricting her emergency powers during the pandemic, and more broadly thereafter, following negotiations with the Republican-led legislature.
But in other states, GOP lawmakers are taking aim at leaders in their own party. Republican-controlled legislatures in Indiana, North Dakota and Ohio have overturned their GOP governors' vetoes of measures to rein in their ability to issue orders during public-health emergencies.
In his veto letter, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine warned that the bill could have far-reaching effects beyond the current pandemic.
"The emergence of a yet unknown, epidemic illnesses bursting on the scene — just as COVID-19 did — remains a very real threat," he wrote, saying the measure "handcuffs Ohio’s ability to confront crises."
The unknowns around the next pandemic worry scientists like Berman.
"The next one might be worse," he said. "If the next one comes along and we still have these laws prohibiting public health measures, then we could end up in a situation where ... we could have taken away some of the tools we had to deal with it."