Michigan panel debates banning companies from requiring COVID-19 vaccination

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Several health care workers on Thursday testified against vaccine mandates during a Michigan House committee regarding legislation that would ban businesses from requiring their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and other diseases.

They were opposed by two business groups that usually are influential with Republicans, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Detroit Regional Chamber, whose officials argued the legislation is governmental meddling in private-sector decisions.

The doctors argued the vaccines did not eliminate or even decrease transmissibility among the vaccinated and raised concerns about the side effects of the vaccine — both concerns the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sought to dispel.

"They are already recommending boosters," said Dr. James Neuenschwander, who operates a holistic medicine practice in Ann Arbor. "This is a clear admission that the vaccine doesn’t work.”

Biden administration medical experts have said the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are 95% effective at preventing COVID-19, but the protection diminishes over time. Since the delta variant has become the dominant form of COVID across the country, the experts said in a Wednesday statement, "we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease."

The Republican-led Workforce, Trades and Talent Committee on Thursday began the debate on the bill that would ban discrimination against an employee who declined vaccinations such as the COVID-19 vaccine and prohibit an employer from requiring the unvaccinated individual from wearing a mask. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine.

The bill also would stop employers from disclosing an unvaccinated individual's status or requiring an individual to indicate their unvaccinated status through an sort of mark or symbol. 

The vaccinations covered by the bill include those administered to prevent against the flu, tetanus, diptheria, pertussis and COVID-19.

Even if the legislation were to pass through both chambers, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is likely to veto it.

Michigan businesses were being done "a monumental disservice" by only hearing one side of the vaccine debate, Rep. Beth Griffin, the Mattawan Republican who chairs the committee, said Thursday.

"Our purpose today is to communicate the messaging that thousands of employees across the state have spoken loudly that they do not think a business should have the power to force an employee to put something into their body," Griffin said. 

House Democrats criticized the bill Thursday as an infringement on business efforts "to keep its customers and to keep its doors open."

“We’re used to seeing Michigan Republicans engage in cheap theatrics and political stunts to score points with the anti-vaccine crowd, but with the delta variant spreading rapidly, this bill is truly dangerous and could pave the way for another COVID surge and economic collapse, hurting small and large businesses," said House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski of Scio Township.

The CDC — which many questioned during Thursday's hearing — has deemed the vaccine safe and effective to prevent against "severe disease, hospitalization and death." The vaccine is approved for emergency use as of now, but could win full approval this fall from the Food and Drug Administration. 

The CDC has noted the vaccine has a lower effectiveness against symptomatic infection when it comes to newer strains such as the delta variant. While breakthrough infections are possible, people with the vaccine are less likely to acquire or spread the virus, the CDC has said.

Medical and business groups expressed opposition to the legislation Thursday, arguing against legislative intrusion into medical science and private business affairs.

"The Michigan Chamber is opposed to this legislation," Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley said on Twitter. "Private sector decisions about health & safety in the workplace should be made by business owners, not politicians."

Brad Williams, vice president for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said many workers are remaining at home because of fears for their health. Vaccines may help to allay some of those fears, he said, and the chamber "firmly" opposes Allor's legislation. 

"This represents the type of big government overreach many of the proponents of this legislation have long railed against in attempts to implement a one-size-fits-all solution to the thousands of business across the state," Williams said.

"There are good employers requiring vaccines and masks. There are good employers who are leaving the choice to individuals.”

Other groups opposing the legislation include the Michigan State Medical Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, Michigan Manufacturers Association and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

Nurse Katie Kern said she's been threatened that she will lose her job if she continues to decline the vaccine and said her employer is actively looking to fill positions when the time runs out for employees to get vaccinated. The demand comes after nurses worked on the front lines of the COVID pandemic for months, sometimes without PPE, Kern said.

"Please, I ask you to consider who will care for you when these hospitals force us to voluntarily resign our position for refusal of vaccine mandate," Kern said. 

"We worked and we risked our lives for the patient, the same patients we are now being deemed unsafe to care for.”

Neurosurgeon Dr. Avery Jackson argued at Thursday's hearing that hospitals and public health experts should be offering earlier treatment options for those with COVID-19 in a bid to avoid more serious symptoms landing people in the hospitals. Instead, they're resorting to the vaccine, which he said is "an experiment at this point."

"It makes a lot of sense, if you’re sick, stay home," Jackson said. "How about mandating that and mandating good common sense?” 

Dr. James Culver, a pain management specialist out of Flint, argued that natural immunity was preferable to any sort of immunity that might be gained through the vaccine, an argument the CDC refuted earlier this month. The CDC said previously infected individuals in a Kentucky study who declined vaccination were more than twice as likely to be reinfected than the fully vaccinated.

But Culver cited a separate Cleveland Clinic study referenced by others at the hearing that found employees who had tested positive for the virus and declined vaccination were not reinfected during a five-month period.  

"This study along with others shows that if you recovered from COVID, you have the best possible immunity," Culver said.