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Gov. John Bel Edwards discusses the public health emergency order and statewide mask mandate while speaking during a media briefing on Louisiana's response to COVID-19 Tuesday Oct. 26, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. Edwards said he's lifting Louisiana's indoor mask mandate but keeping in place face covering requirements for certain K-12 schools that have bucked public health guidance by allowing students exposed to the coronavirus remain in the classroom.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the required immunization schedule for students at K-12 schools has energized a wave of opposition from mostly Republican state lawmakers, who are gathering in Baton Rouge Monday for an oversight hearing where they’ll attempt to thwart the proposal.

No matter what happens at that hearing, Edwards will have the final say on whether the vaccine gets added to the schedule, and the Democratic governor said Friday that so far, no evidence has been presented to change his mind.

“I just think it’s really, really important to embrace the science and really it’s also important to not engage in misinformation,” Edwards said. “Absent some compelling reason, which I at present have not seen, I fully expect that we will be adding the vaccine to the schedule.”

The rule would initially apply to students 16 and older, beginning next August at the start of the 2022 schoolyear, the governor said. Like all other school vaccination requirements in Louisiana, parents and students could easily opt out, with either a letter from a medical provider or a simple signature in dissent.

“It will be up for parents to decide whether their kids get vaccinated or not,” Edwards said.

Despite those exemptions, Republican lawmakers have attacked the proposal as a burdensome example of government overreach. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder called it a “line in the sand that will not be crossed.” And another powerful lawmaker, Senate Finance Chair Bodi White, suggested slashing the Health Department’s budget if the rule moves forward.

The response is a far cry from the last time Louisiana added a vaccine to its immunization schedule.

Back in 2015, the Legislature, with near-unanimous support, voted to require students get vaccinated against meningitis – a rare but deadly disease that can kill in a matter of hours. Garnering only a single vote in opposition, the proposal sailed through the statehouse with little debate, thanks in part to Louisiana's broad opt-out provisions.

But the politics of vaccines are no longer so simple.

If the meningitis bill came up for a vote today, it’s unlikely it’d pass with as much ease, said former state Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican, conservative commentator and self-described “huge proponent of vaccines” who six years ago carried the legislation through the upper chamber as chair of the Senate Education Committee.

“People don’t want to be told by the government what they have to do, and yet, in a way, that’s kind of contradictory, because we already mandate a bunch of vaccines for schools and so forth,” Appel said. “Whether it makes sense or not, it doesn’t really matter.”

‘No one will ever be forced’

Louisiana has long prided itself on having among the broadest exemptions in the nation for students and parents who want to opt-out of school immunization requirements. The state not only respects religious and medical exemptions, but also philosophical objections. The Department of Education even provides a one-page exemption form online that parents can sign and submit to their school to exempt their child from the requirements.

Those protections won’t change with the addition of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“We respect parental and student choice in Louisiana when it comes to vaccinations,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the state’s top public health official, at a press conference Friday. “That doesn’t change. No one will ever be forced to get a vaccine against their will.”

Whether it's masks or vaccines, Republicans nationwide have emerged as vocal critics of mandates throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and opponents in Louisiana have latched on to similar rhetoric to challenge the school vaccine requirement.

“I’m not in favor of anything that mandates an action,” said House Health & Welfare Chair Larry Bagley, a Stonewall Republican, in an interview last week. “I should be able to make decisions about my own health.”

Still, few of the mandates that have attracted controversy offer the same leeway with exemptions as Louisiana law does for school-aged children. As Bagley himself noted in November, for parents and students in Louisiana, “All you need to do is say, ‘No, I’m not going to take it’.”

A vaccine-preventable disease?

Some opponents, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, argue that because the COVID-19 vaccines don’t prevent infection, they can’t legally be placed on the immunization schedule. But experts say none of the half-dozen vaccines currently required in Louisiana meet that standard.

To make the argument, Landry and others cite the state statute that created the immunization schedule, which requires students to show evidence of immunization against “vaccine-preventable diseases.” They claim that COVID-19 doesn’t fit that description because vaccinated people can still contract the disease, albeit less easily than those who are unvaccinated.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not a vaccine-preventable disease,” said House Majority Leader Blake Miguez, an Erath Republican. “You can still catch COVID even with a vaccine.”

“COVID is not a vaccine-preventable disease,” echoed state Rep. Michael Echols, a Monroe Republican.

But no vaccine is 100 percent effective at preventing infection, said Dr. John Vanchiere, the immediate past president of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Vaccines do, however, significantly reduce the chance of serious illness or death.

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“We know that the COVID vaccine does prevent disease,” Vanchiere said. “By their standard, they would exclude all vaccines.”

Susan Hassig, a Tulane University epidemiologist, pointed to a widely-publicized outbreak of measles at Disneyland several years ago, where several patients contracted the disease despite being vaccinated.

“Vaccination does not automatically convey lifetime protection,” Hassig added, noting that the immunization schedule requires students get several booster shots before entering school.

‘A gross misrepresentation’

Several lawmakers have suggested that because the mortality rate from COVID-19 for children is lower than older adults, it shouldn’t be required for school entry. “This is not a childhood disease,” said state Sen. White, a Central Republican. “Adults get it, everybody can get it.”

But Dr. Kanter, the state health officer, said the notion that COVID-19 doesn’t have a significant impact on children is “a gross misrepresentation.”

Since the start of the pandemic, 18 children have died from COVID-19 in Louisiana. Nine of those deaths occurred during the delta surge, Kanter noted. Meanwhile, more than 275 kids have suffered from multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare but serious complication linked to the disease.

And according to a modeling study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, for every four COVID-19 deaths in the United States, one child loses a parent or caregiver. That amounts to more than 140,000 children who have lost a parent, grandparent or other guardian throughout the pandemic.

“This virus does affect children in profound ways and it’s really scary, I think, when people minimize that,” Kanter said. “I would ask people to look seriously at the effect this has had on families throughout the state."

Some opponents have suggested that 18 pediatric deaths aren’t significant enough to warrant placing the COVID vaccine on the immunization schedule. But the death toll from meningitis – which has killed less than 30 people annually in Louisiana over the last few decades, according to state data – wasn’t on lawmakers minds in 2015 when they added the vaccine to the state schedule. Instead, lawmakers listened with empathy to testimony from a mother who lost her only son to the horrific disease.

But the push to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the state schedule isn’t just about preventing childhood deaths. It’s also aimed at cutting down on transmission, Edwards said. During the delta surge, at least 25 percent of infections were found in children, the governor noted. With inoculation, the chance of transmission decreases significantly.

“If you want to avoid disruptions in school because of outbreaks and the illnesses that occur in families and communities and so forth, this is part of the overall effort,” Edwards said.

‘Putting the cart before the horse’

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said state officials welcome the opportunity to attend Monday’s House Health & Welfare oversight hearing to answer questions about the pending rule and COVID-19 vaccines.

State Rep. Julie Emerson, a Carencro Republican, said she plans to vote down the measure, but wants to know why the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t being placed on the state’s “recommended” alongside the flu vaccine instead of on the “required” list.

It’s also unclear when, exactly, the rule will be enforced, Emerson said. Edwards on Friday said the schools wouldn’t start requiring the vaccine for eligible age groups until next school year, but the rule could formally be adopted as early as late December.

The requirement would only apply to age groups that are fully approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to receive the COVID-19 jab, which at the moment, only includes those age 16 and up. When full licensure is granted for younger age groups, the rule will automatically be updated to cover them.

“This is the absolute highest bar of safety and efficacy that the U.S. government has to offer,” Kanter said of the federal licensure process.

But State Rep. Joe Stagni, a Kenner Republican known for being politically moderate, said he’s uncomfortable approving the rule in its current form knowing that down-the-line it will be automatically updated to include younger age groups without another stop before a legislative oversight committee.

The vaccine is currently approved for emergency use in children aged 5 to 15, and experts say it could be at least a year before full licensure is granted.

“This is like putting the cart before the horse,” Stagni said. “At some point we’re going to have enough data to show whether the vaccine is safe and effective for children as well. I would prefer voting on that when I’ve seen the data."

The oversight hearing will take place at 10 a.m. in Room 5 at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. At the conclusion of the meeting, lawmakers will offer an up-or-down vote of the rule.

Regardless of how the committee votes, the only way to stop the proposal from going into effect is if Edwards decides to backtrack, and according to the governor, that’s unlikely to happen.

“I would have to learn something different than I’ve learned to date, whether it be something pertaining to the law or to the vaccine, some medical reason,” Edwards said. “I don’t anticipate that will happen. I’ve done a really deep dive already.”


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater