Vaccine requirement for Louisiana schools drawing GOP anger

Associated Press

Baton Rouge, La. — Louisiana's Republican legislative leaders are outraged about a plan by Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration to start requiring some students to get the coronavirus vaccination or submit a written dissent to attend school.

The Advocate reports the mandate, which has not yet taken effect, would only apply to students whose age groups are fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to receive the shot. For now, that includes high school students age 16 and older.

But if the FDA eventually grants full backing to the immunizations for younger children, that vaccination requirement would expand to lower grades and daycare facilities, under the health department plan.

Whenever the vaccination requirement begins, parents could opt-out of the requirement by signing a simple statement of exemption.

Still, news of the forthcoming rule aroused anger among high-ranking GOP state lawmakers, who described the proposal as an example of government overreach.

FILE - A healthcare worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.   U.S. regulators have opened up COVID-19 booster shots to all and more adults, Friday, Nov. 19, letting them choose another dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

“This is a line in the sand that will not be crossed,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, texted lawmakers Saturday, according to the newspaper.

GOP Sen. Bodi White, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, called the proposal an “intimidation tactic.” He threatened to “take action that will severely affect their budget" if the Louisiana Department of Health moves forward with the vaccine requirement.

It's unclear when the new vaccination requirement would be enforced. Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, is advising lawmakers that he believes the Edwards administration plan does not comply with state law, raising the possibility of a court fight.

The health department submitted public notification to lawmakers in September that it intended to add the coronavirus vaccine to its state-mandated immunization schedule. Under Louisiana law, the House and Senate health committees can only block such a rule from taking effect if they both vote to reject it and the governor agrees with them.

That isn't going to happen.

Edwards told The Advocate it would be “inappropriate, unfortunate and dangerous” to keep the coronavirus vaccines available with full FDA approval off the state’s immunization schedule.

“Typically, when the FDA gives full licensure or full approval to a vaccine, we will add it to the schedule, and that’s what we’re doing here through a formal rule-making process,” the Democratic governor said after speaking at a vaccination event.

Even if lawmakers can't block the new rule, the House health committee intends to hold a hearing Dec. 6 to register its complaints.

Students in Louisiana are required to be immunized against certain diseases before attending public and private K-12 schools, daycare facilities, universities and colleges. The Legislature has delegated responsibility for curating that list to the state health department.

To enter kindergarten, for example, students must be vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, chickenpox, hepatitis B, the whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella. Another round of shots is required before entering sixth grade to boost immunity and stave off meningitis.

But Louisiana offers broad exemptions. Students or parents can provide a written dissent or a letter from a doctor citing medical concerns. The state Department of Education provides a stock exemption form online.

“All of the opt-out provisions that are in law around the other vaccines will pertain to this one as well,” Edwards said.

Some lawmakers said that because the coronavirus vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing someone from contracting the COVID-19 disease, it does not belong on the state’s immunization schedule. Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, argued that “an immunization, by definition, means you’re immune and can’t get it.”

But Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, said none of the vaccines currently required for school entry meet that standard. However, the vaccines do offer substantial protection, particularly against the most severe outcomes of a disease, she said.

“Vaccination efficacy wanes over time,” Hassig added. “They are not lifelong protections. That’s just biology.”

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