Tennessee lawmakers grapple with COVID-19 vaccination requirements, exemptions

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Elizabeth Fite, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read
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Apr. 18—The rollout of new vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has brought public health laws into the spotlight, leading Tennessee legislators to consider an array of bills that could impact inoculation policies in the state.

Two bills gaining the most traction — Senate Bill 0187 and House Bill 0013 — would take away state and local governments' ability to require a person to get a COVID-19 vaccine, including in schools.

The bills also add language around vaccine exemptions, which are allowed for people who object based on religious grounds, by adding the phrase "right of conscience" as a reason to refuse vaccination.

Both bills have already passed in committee and are set to go before the full House and Senate this week.

Whether to take a COVID-19 vaccine now is voluntary in Tennessee, and Gov. Bill Lee has indicated he has no desire to mandate vaccination. However, states have the legal authority to do so, and bill sponsor Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, wants to make sure that doesn't happen for the coronavirus vaccines.

Many requirements for other vaccines already exist in the state, such as those for school children and college students. Some jobs that pose a high risk of exposure to vaccine preventable-diseases, including those at hospitals and nursing homes, also require certain vaccinations. Bowling's bill exempts public health care facilities and medical students and residents at state academic institutions.

"All of this is about God-given constitutional rights of people to determine what's going into their body," Bowling said during a Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting on March 31.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said during that committee meeting that the bill is "giving credence" to something that isn't happening in the state.

"There's not a mandate right now. I think everybody in the state's made it clear there's not going to be," Yarbro said. "By giving credence to that, I think we're playing into the hands of something that's not actually helpful. We need people in this state to be safe, and I think that we should be more concerned with our long-term obligations and what is best to keep people safe, keep people healthy, than the politics of the moment."

Throughout history, vaccines and vaccine requirements have played a critical role in combating infectious diseases and led to important public health victories, including the eradication of smallpox worldwide and polio everywhere except Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Another bill that's passed the Senate Health Committee and now is working its way through the House Health Committee deals specifically with COVID-19 vaccines in schools.

Though COVID-19 vaccines now are not authorized for use in children under 16, drug companies are studying their use in younger age groups, and it's expected they will eventually be authorized for kids.

Senate Bill 1313, also known as House Bill 1421, "prohibits a school from forcing, coercing or requiring a student to receive an immunization for COVID-19" and "prohibits a school from taking an adverse action against a student who refuses to receive an immunization against COVID-19."

During a committee meeting, House sponsor Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, said that the bill isn't for or against coronavirus vaccines.

"It simply guarantees that families, in consultation with their doctors, make decisions that are best for their children," Grills said.

Rep. Sabi "Doc" Kumar, R-Springfield, who's also a surgeon, said he agrees with the concept that people should be free to choose, but laws also must protect public welfare. Kumar gave the example of a child who can't receive an immunization due to a medical condition but who still has to attend school with kids who could refuse vaccinations.

"How can we protect a person who needs protection because of their medical condition and, of course, support liberty? There needs to be a balance," Kumar said.

Several other committee members said they were in support of Grills' bill, but only because the COVID-19 vaccine is authorized under an emergency use declaration and has not yet achieved full FDA approval. They were concerned that the bill as written now would limit schools' ability to require vaccination down the road.

Members agreed to draft an amendment to the bill that would allow the law to expire within three years or when the vaccine reaches full FDA approval, whichever comes first.

Another bill that has already passed in the Senate and soon will be voted on in the House would require schools, child care facilities and public institutions of higher education to include information on immunization exemptions with any communication sent to students or parents about immunization requirements.

"This bill isn't about vaccines. This bill isn't about if vaccines are safe. This bill simply is about transparency and full disclosure," said sponsor Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland. "House Bill 1403 simply says that when a school communicates about vaccines and immunization, that they must also disclose that religious exemptions are available."

There are several other bills in the General Assembly targeting vaccine requirements and exemptions but whose futures appear more uncertain.

SB 1308 and HB 1147 would prohibit an employer from requiring an employee to receive a COVID-19 vaccine against the employee's will. However, the bill was taken off notice in the House in March.

SB 0186 and HB 0172 would prohibit state and local government entities from requiring any vaccination as a condition of employment and also provide unemployment benefits to a claimant who voluntarily leaves employment due to a vaccine requirement. The bills have been assigned to committees but have not been discussed in the Senate since March and the House since February.

SB 0564, which would create a civil cause of action for discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccine status, has been rolled to 2022.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.