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A week after multiple major health care providers in Idaho mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for their staff, and with some Republicans calling for legislative intervention, state officials are debating how much to get involved in private businesses’ dealings with their employees.
On July 8, Saint Alphonsus Health System, St. Luke’s Health System and Primary Health Medical Group announced that they would require all staff, students and contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by September. Since then, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and a handful of Republican lawmakers have pushed for the Legislature to address the topic.
On Friday, a day after hundreds of protesters gathered at the Capitol to protest the mandates, the Senate Republican Caucus announced that it would hold a series of meetings about the issue.
“We call on business leaders, the governor’s office, and our colleagues in House leadership to join the Senate in a series of meetings to find solutions that will protect the employees, patients, and the viability of our health care systems in Idaho,” the caucus said in an emailed statement. “Business thrives when government involvement is limited, and it is our hope that this issue can be resolved before more regulation, as the result of legislation, needs to be considered.”
It was not immediately clear Friday whether Senate leaders planned to try to meet with hospital and health system administrators about the topic. The Senate’s majority caucus chair, Mark Harris, could not be reached for comment by the Idaho Statesman.
Some Republicans, as well as the few Democratic lawmakers in the Idaho Legislature, have said there should be no interference from state government in the matter. They have pointed out that any attempt to ban mask mandates would be met with a lawsuit, with the state very likely to lose, which is what happened in Texas when a federal court ruled that a Houston hospital system had every right to require vaccinations.
In an email, Republican Gov. Brad Little’s spokesperson, Marissa Morrison Hyer, said Little is not in favor of getting involved.
“Governor Little believes banning a private sector entity from managing its employees the way it wants amounts to government overreach,” Hyer said. “Government should stay out of decisions involving employers and their employees as much as possible.”
She added, “Governor Little still urges Idahoans to choose to receive the vaccine because it is safe, effective, and our best shot at continued health and prosperity for the people of Idaho.”
Republicans split on government interference on vaccines
McGeachin, who is running for governor, has called the mandates “medical tyranny,” and on July 9 she asked House Republicans to reconvene to address the topic. McGeachin voiced her support for the Senate Republican Caucus statement on Friday, tweeting that she was “glad” to see the effort to bring leaders “to the table to find solutions to this very important issue.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke has said that he doesn’t “like mandates” but that he doesn’t believe government should get involved in contracts between employees and employers.
In an email Friday, House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma told the Statesman that leadership hopes to address the topic without there being a need to try to pass legislation.
“House leadership has been actively engaged in working toward a private sector solution since the health systems’ announcements were made,” she said. “As Republicans, we believe in limited governmental intervention in private business, and while most of us find the idea of mandated vaccination extremely frustrating, we need to continue to work toward a nongovernmental solution.”
There is also the question about whether the Legislature can simply reconvene. When the regular legislative session ended in May, the House chose to recess, meaning legislators could return to the Statehouse before the end of the year without first needing to be called into special session by Little. The Senate, however, voted to adjourn and end the session.
Sen. Fred Martin, a Boise Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, told the Statesman this week that “our ability to come into session is definitely a question in my mind.”
Health systems try to deal with COVID-19
In an emailed statement, Odette Bolano, president and CEO of Saint Alphonsus, told the Statesman that the hospital “appreciates the opportunity to have discussions with our legislators around the COVID vaccine.”
“As a healthcare organization, rooted in the commitment to our core value of safety, we take seriously our role as a trusted source of scientifically based information on the benefits of vaccination as the most effective tool addressing the current pandemic.”
A spokesperson for St. Luke’s, Taylor Reeves, said by email that “Safety and our obligation to protect our staff, patients and communities from vaccine-preventable disease informed our decision to add the COVID-19 vaccine to our list of required immunizations.” She added that the hospital “look(s) forward to participating” in discussions with local leaders about the importance of vaccination.
A spokesperson for Primary Health did not respond to a request for comment.
In their announcements about the mandates, Idaho health care providers emphasized the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, which have been at least partially administered to more than 185 million Americans with few side effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After falling to below 50 new COVID-19 cases per day in Idaho on July 5, the seven-day moving average of new cases has risen to nearly 143 in the state, according to Department of Health and Welfare data. And the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has gone from 2.8% the week of June 13 to 4.3% the week of July 14.
“There is a message that is crystal clear: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said at a press conference Friday. On July 8, a White House official told reporters that “virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths” are now occurring among unvaccinated people.
Idaho continues to have one of the worst vaccination rates in the nation, with about 45% of the eligible population fully vaccinated, compared to 56.6% nationally.