Louisiana lawmakers voted Monday to reject Gov. John Bel Edwards' proposal to require students get vaccinated against COVID-19 before entering school, though the Democratic governor has said he intends to override legislative rejection and move forward with adding the vaccine to the state immunization schedule.
Following an hours-long oversight hearing chock-full of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, the Louisiana House Committee on Health & Welfare voted 13-2 to oppose the rule, with a string of mostly Republican lawmakers labeling it a form of government overreach that infringes on parental choice, despite Louisiana's exceptionally broad opt-out provisions.
Under the rule as proposed by the Louisiana Department of Health, students age 16 and up, beginning in the 2022 school-year, would be required to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19, or submit a written exemption, to attend public schools, colleges and universities. Younger age groups would be added as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration expands full licensure.
Like all other vaccines on the state immunization schedule, parents and students could easily opt out of the requirement with either a letter from a medical provider or a simple signature in dissent.
"We're proud that Louisiana values parental consent," said Dr. Joseph Kanter, Edwards' top public health adviser, noting that Louisiana allows for medical, religious and personal philosophical objections. “I don’t believe this is a mandate. Anyone can opt-out.”
Ignoring those exemptions, several lawmakers said the rule tramples on parent's rights to make health care decisions for their children. Others, including House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, said filling out a simple exemption form was too onerous of a requirement.
"Parents shouldn't be forced to jump through hoops to opt-out of the COVID shot," Schexnayder said. He argued that Edwards' administration didn't have the authority to implement the rule.
Monday's hearing kicked off with an extraordinary display of disinformation, with lawmakers sitting in rapt attention for nearly half-an-hour as one of the nation's leading promulgators of anti-vaccine propaganda on social media — Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. — argued that the COVID-19 vaccine "is the deadliest vaccine ever made."
That was just the start. Over hours of testimony, anti-vaccine activist and even some lawmakers downplayed the threat of COVID-19 to children and repeated misinformation suggesting that the vaccines hadn't undergone rigorous enough safety testing.
Anticipating such comments, Kanter, an emergency room physician, focused his testimony on debunking several myths about the COVID-19 vaccines, starting with the notion that virus didn't have an impact on children. Since the start of the pandemic, 18 children have died from COVID-19, four of whom had no preexisting comorbidities, according to state epidemiologist Theresa Sokol.
"I can’t think of another disease on that childhood schedule that we’ve lost that many kids from," Kanter said, adding that over the last six years, Louisiana recorded 10 childhood deaths from influenza.
"We have heard myths that the vaccine contains microchips, that the vaccine makes you magnetized, that it interferes with cell phone towers," Kanter said. "What gives me concern is some families fall victim to that, and there can be real consequences of that."
Attorney General Jeff Landry said that because the COVID-19 vaccine doesn't prevent infection, it can't be considered a "vaccine-preventable disease" for inclusion on the state immunization schedule. But no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infection, Kanter said, adding that breakthrough infections are a fact-of-life for all vaccines.
In 2017, for example, LSU experienced an outbreak of mumps. Of the 58 students infected, 53 were fully vaccinated and experienced breakthrough infections, Kanter said.
Landry also argued that when state lawmakers crafted statutes on school vaccine requirements decades ago, they didn't intend it to include "mRNA injections" like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. But Kanter said that vaccines, like any technology, evolve over time.
"Vaccines that were cutting-edge decades ago are in some instances considered rudimentary now and have been replaced by newer, safer, and more effective versions," Kanter said.
Opponents described the rule as an example of government overreach, though it's unclear whether that same criticism extends to the half-dozen other vaccines that Louisiana currently requires students to be immunized against.
“I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m anti-vaccine mandate,” said state Rep. Richard Nelson, a Mandeville Republican. “Is this really about controlling the virus anymore, or is this about controlling the citizens?”
Others said that while they're not against vaccines, it was too soon to require the coronavirus immunization until there was more long-term study. Some said natural immunity from contracting COVID-19 was enough to keep from needing a vaccine, even though infectious disease experts disagree.
The fate of the proposal is likely to be decided by the courts, with Attorney General Landry and the Edwards administration in disagreement over whether the vaccine requirement can be legally enacted by the governor without support from the full Legislature.
Students in Louisiana are required to be immunized against certain diseases before attending K-12 schools, daycare centers and colleges, and lawmakers have delegated some of the responsibility about what’s on the list to the health department.
Voting to oppose the rule (13): Reps. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Roy Daryl Adams, No Party-Jackson; Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City; Michael Echols, R-Monroe; Julie Emerson, R-Carenco; C. Travis Johnson, D-Vidalia; Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria; Wayne McMahen, R-Minden; Bob Owen, R-Slidell; Thomas Pressley, R-Shreveport; Joe Stagni, R-Kenner; Christopher Turner, R-Ruston.
Voting to support the rule (2): Reps Robby Carter, D-Amite; Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas.