Republican state lawmakers are lining up against a proposal from Louisiana's health department that would require students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — or submit a written dissent — to attend schools, daycares and universities.
The mandate would only apply to age groups that are fully approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to receive the jab, which at the moment, includes those age 16 and up. And parents could easily opt-out of the requirement, without having to provide justification, by signing a simple statement of exemption.
Still, news of the forthcoming rule aroused anger among some GOP state lawmakers, who characterized the proposal as an example of government overreach.
"This is a line in the sand that will not be crossed," House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, texted lawmakers Saturday.
State Sen. Bodi White, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, called the proposal an "intimidation tactic" and said if the health department moves forward with the mandate, "we will take action that will severely affect their budget."
The Office of Public Health notified both the Legislature and the public in September that it intended to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its state-mandated immunization schedule. Under Louisiana's rule-making statutes, the health care committees in both the House and Senate can together vote to reject a rule to block its implementation, but unless the governor agrees, the rule will still go into effect.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said in an interview Sunday it would be "absolutely foolish" and "inappropriate, unfortunate and dangerous" to not add the COVID-19 vaccines available with full FDA-approval to 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 for 5-to-11-year-olds at Quarters in Baton Rouge.
Students are already required under state law to be immunized against certain vaccine-preventable diseases before attending public and private K-12 schools, daycares, 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.
Still, Louisiana offers broad exemptions from those mandates. A student or guardian can submit a written dissent to opt out of the immunization requirement. Or they can provide a letter from a physician stating that a particular vaccine isn’t advised for medical reasons. The state Department of Education even 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 Sunday.
Some lawmakers said that because the COVID-19 vaccines aren't 100% effective at preventing someone from contracting the disease, it doesn't belong on the state's immunization schedule. Senate President Page Cortez, for example, 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."
That's why five-year-olds are expected to receive five doses of the vaccine targeting diphtheria and tetanus before entering kindergarten, among other booster shots.
Eighteen children in Louisiana under the age of 18 have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to health department data. And 274 Louisiana children infected with the virus have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare but serious complication linked to the disease.
Still, Sen. White, a Central Republican, said that COVID-19 isn't a "childhood disease," and therefore shouldn't be required for school entry. "Adults get it, everybody can get it," he said.
The health department could adopt the rule as early as January, though it's unclear if it will be enforced before the next schoolyear. Initially, it will only apply to those age 16 and up, and additional age groups will be added as FDA grants full approval.
The House Committee on Health & Welfare scheduled an oversight hearing for Dec. 6 to review the rule as proposed. And Cortez said the Senate will likely hold its own hearing, though a decision hasn't been made.
“At the end of the day, I hope that (lawmakers) will decide to be educated on this and cast and informed, responsible vote," Edwards said. "And if they don’t, we’ll just work the process all the way through."