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The state House chamber.

A debate over the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines broke out in a Louisiana House committee Monday, with multiple Republican lawmakers insinuating the vaccines are unsafe and poorly-studied, contrary to the opinions of mainstream medical experts.

The House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure easily advanced two bills aiming to make sure people aren’t mandated or coerced to get the COVID-19 vaccine to the full House for debate--but not before members erupted in an argument about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines, which medical experts and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control say are a safe and effective way of protecting the recipients from contracting and suffering severe cases of COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 582,000 in the United States.

The committee without objection advanced HB 103 by Rep. Danny McCormick, an Oil City Republican. The bill would shield people from civil liability if they refused to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for employees or customers of a business and bar the government from withholding a permit or business license because a company refused to mandate the vaccine.

Lawmakers also approved on a 8-3 vote of Rep. Kathy Edmonston’s HB 498, which would prohibit COVID or SARS vaccine status from being used to determine whether a person can participate in public hearings, getting permits or licenses and participating in government programs, among other things. Edmonston is a Gonzales Republican.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, claimed her doctor’s friend, who is also a doctor, told patients not to take the COVID vaccine because they could get “very very sick and possibly die from it.” She said she’s worried the U.S. will require vaccines for certain forms of travel.

Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, said Louisiana has not had a confirmed death tied to the COVID-19 vaccines. Severe side effects from all three vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. are rare.

Rep. Robby Carter, an Amite Democrat who avoided the State Capitol for part of last year after getting a kidney transplant over concerns of contracting COVID-19, told another woman who was testifying against the vaccines that getting vaccinated is a small price to pay to get the state back to normal. The two engaged in a heated argument, with the woman at one point saying "It’s my body, my right. And I have the right to say no.”

Chairman Greg Miller eventually broke up the argument after the two sides repeatedly talked over each other.

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Alex Billioux, the former head of the state Office of Public Health who helmed the state’s response to the pandemic for much of 2020, tweeted “It’s been terrible to go through a once in a century pandemic resulting in such a devastating loss of life and livelihood. Learning absolutely nothing from it, and instead doubling down on anti-scientific policy to ensure even more people will be at risk the next time...tragic!”

Martha Huckabay, who heads a Republican women’s group in New Orleans, insisted she’s not an “anti-vaxxer,” but told committee members she didn’t want to be forced to get vaccinated like she’s been forced to wear a mask at the grocery store. Huckabay said she contracted COVID twice.

“I’ve been thrown out and nearly arrested four times for not wearing a mask,” Huckabay said of her time at grocery stores during the pandemic.

Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, argued with a cardiovascular physiology student in New Orleans who came to the committee hearing to testify about what the science shows about the vaccines. Amedee claimed the official information about the vaccine has been “slanted and propagandized,” and suggested the student, Angelle Bradford, wasn’t getting the full picture through her education.

“They’re not hiding information from you,” Bradford replied.

Monika Gerhart, who represents the city of New Orleans at the state Legislature, warned the legislation could have a “cooling effect” on vaccinations in the state. Louisiana is already struggling to vaccinate its population as misinformation about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines has flourished in recent months. Only 44% of Louisiana adults have been vaccinated, second-worst in the nation behind only Mississippi, according to CDC data.

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