Louisiana Sessions Opens

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, second right, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, talks with fellow caucus members during opening day of the legislative session, April 12.

With the Louisiana Legislature entering the second week of its 2021 session, at least 68% of the legislators say they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a survey conducted by The Advocate | The Times-Picayune.

Among 142 lawmakers polled, 98 said they had availed themselves of the jab, while 30 said they have yet to be vaccinated. A handful said they had recently recovered from COVID-19 and plan to take the vaccine soon.

The two most powerful lawmakers – House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette – refused to say whether they had been vaccinated. They joined a dozen other GOP lawmakers who wouldn’t answer the question, with some calling the survey an invasion of privacy.

The House has 104 of its usual 105-member contingent present – one seat is vacant until Saturday's April 24 election – and the Senate has 39 members. Only one representative was unavailable to be polled.

Legislators descended on Baton Rouge last week for the first time since vaccines entered the market, a development that allowed the Legislature to return to some semblance of normalcy: lawmakers sat side-by-side in packed committee rooms, lobbyists lined the State Capitol’s hallways, and the public could once again watch the legislative process unfold in-person. All are required to wear masks to enter the building, though few of the masks stay on throughout the day.

State Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Praireville, said that the availability of vaccinations has allowed lawmakers to "work together without having the COVID axe hanging over our necks." Lawmakers and their staff got a head start on vaccinations when Gov. John Bel Edwards expanded eligibility on March 2.

Vaccinations in Louisiana have slowed down in recent weeks, with the supply of doses now far outpacing the demand for appointments. Louisiana ranks in the bottom third of states in its vaccination effort, with 22.4% of its population fully inoculated, according to federal data. 

Some lawmakers see it as their responsibility to get vaccinated, especially as the state begins ramping up its own grassroots persuasion campaign. 

"I'm a lawmaker and I'm supposed to be leading the way here," said Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall. "Why wouldn't you get it? It's the only way we're going to combat COVID ... It's not going to just go away."

"The entire medical community has said that in order to function as a society, we need to get vaccinated," said Sen. Louie Bernhard, R-Nachitoches. "Everyone has a right to make their own decision on this, but it’s an example we could set without too much trouble."

Even as they opened the door for a somewhat regular legislative session, vaccines have proven to be a politically polarizing subject among Louisiana’s lawmakers, and a spate of legislation has been introduced in reaction to its rollout. 

A recent poll from LSU indicated that hesitancy may fall along partisan lines, with 40% of self-identified Republicans saying they won't get vaccinated, compared to just 13% of Democrats. 

Among the 94 GOP lawmakers elected to Louisiana's Legislature, 60% said they had been or would soon get vaccinated. Those most vocally opposed to getting the vaccine themselves are on the far right politically.

Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, posted a Facebook video last week where he offered three reasons why the public shouldn't get the COVID-19 vaccine: “Number one: people are trying to bully you into getting it. Number two: people are trying to use fear to make you get. Number three: they’re trying to guilt you into getting the vaccine.”

McCormick said he didn't need the vaccine because he already had COVID-19, though medical experts do not yet know how long antibodies last and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinations regardless of whether you had COVID-19.

House Bill 103, filed by McCormick, would allow those who suffer "injury or death resulting" from a required COVID-19 vaccine to sue public or private entities that required that vaccine for entry, employment, admission or service. 

Another proposal, House Bill 489, from Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales, would prohibit state or local governments from discriminating based on a vaccination status, though schools are exempt. 

In an interview, Edmonston, a former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she wouldn’t go “within a foot of the vaccine,” calling it “way too experimental.”

Senate Bill 198, from Sen. Stewart Cathey Jr., R-Monroe, would prohibit state-owned buildings from denying entry to those who aren't vaccinated. 

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Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said that he would never second guess a person's decision to get vaccinated, but added that state lawmakers do play a role in setting a good example and communicating facts around the vaccine. 

Some lawmakers referenced misinformation about the vaccine, which has been particularly potent on social media, in their decision not to get vaccinated.  

Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, said she was concerned the vaccine could cause spontaneous miscarriages among women — a claim that exploded online in March but was promptly debunked by medical experts as untrue. 

Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, claimed that a family friend died from the vaccine, though a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health said the state has not confirmed any deaths from any of the vaccines administered in Louisiana.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the partisanship that's emerged around vaccines doesn't make sense, and pointed out that the Trump administration played an instrumental role in developing the vaccine in record time. 

"It just doesn't make sense to me, but I'm going to continue to appeal to them," Edwards said. "To reach out and have a conversation, with a trusted source, a physician, somebody, so that if they can articulate a question or some basis for hesitancy, then that can be addressed, so that person can protect themselves and others."

The state's Health Department is beginning to ramp up those outreach efforts and has partnered with civic groups, churches and other "trusted sources" across the state to target census tracts with the lowest participation rate. 

Some political leaders are content to stay out of those conversations. 

"I don't want my constituents to be influenced one way or another by my decision,” said Rep. Jonathan Goudeau, R-Lafayette, who refused to answer whether he had been vaccinated. 

“That’s a private health matter that I wouldn’t want to discuss publicly,” said Rep. Philip Tarver, R-Lake Charles. 

Even if politicians enter the fray, they're unlikely to engender much trust from the public when it comes to public health issues. A recent survey from the Louisiana Public Health Institute, found that "public figures" were the least trusted source of information among those who are hesitant to get the vaccine.  

Among the 30 lawmakers who haven’t gotten vaccinated, five said they had recently recovered from COVID-19 and definitely planned on getting vaccinated in the future: Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe; Rep. John Illg Jr., R-River Ridge; Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte; Rep. Larry Selders, D-Baton Rouge; Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge.

Other lawmakers said they were holding out on getting inoculated until there was more information.

"I want to wait just a little bit longer," said Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia. "I'm certainly going to take it, but just like with a new car, you want to make sure the glitches are fixed and recalls are done before you buy.”

VACCINATED (98): Rep. Roy Daryl Adams, No Party Jackson; Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette; Rep. Kendricks Brass, D-Vacherie; Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine; Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Dewith Carrier, R-Oakdale; Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans; Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite; Rep. Wilford Carter, Sr., D-Lake Charles; Rep. Mack Cormier, D-Belle Chasse; Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville; Rep. Mary DuBuisson, R-Slidell; Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans; Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe; Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, D-New Orleans; Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace; Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport; Rep. Kyle Green Jr., D-Marrero; Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria ; Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie; Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington; Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans; Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer; Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport; Rep. Michael Johnson, R-Pineville; Rep. C.T. Johnson, D-Vidalia; Rep. Frederick Jones, D-Bastrop; Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Brusly; Rep. Timothy Kerner, R-Lafitte; Rep. Jeremy LaCombe, D-Livonia; Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans ; Rep. Ed Larvadain III, D-Alexandria; Rep. Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey; Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma; Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna; Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro; Rep. Scott McKnight, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas; Rep. Gregory Miller, R-Norco; Rep. Pat Moore, D-Monroe; Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond; Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville; Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans; Rep. Joseph Orgeron, R-Larose; Rep. Robert Owen, R-Slidell; Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette; Rep. Thomas Pressly IV, R-Shreveport; Rep. Neil Riser, R-Columbus; Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings; Rep. Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Hornbeck; Rep. Vincent St. Blanc III, R-Franklin; Rep. Polly Thomas, R-Metairie; Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi; Rep. Christopher Turner, R-Ruston; Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner; Rep. William Wheat Jr., R-Ponchatoula; Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa; Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans; Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington; Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma; Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles; Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin; Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge; Sen. Louie Bernard, R-Natchitoches; Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette; Sen. Joseph Bouie Jr., D-New Orleans; Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans; Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero; Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge; Sen. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge; Sen. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans; Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville; Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell; Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles; Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria; Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington; Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport; Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks; Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden; Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton; Sen. John Morris, R-West Monroe; Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City; Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans; Sen Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs; Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales; Sen. Mike Reese, R-Leesville; Sen. Gary Smith Jr., D-Norco; Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport; Sen. Rick Ward, III, R-Port Allen; and Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge.

NOT VACCINATED (30): Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma; Rep. Gerald Beaullieu, R-New Iberia; Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia; Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte; Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City; Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice; Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales; Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro; Rep. Leslie Farnum, R-Sulphur; Rep. Gabe Firment, R-Pollock; Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux; Rep. Lawrence Frieman, R-Abita Springs; Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs; Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge; Rep. John Illg Jr., R-River Ridge; Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany; Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City; Rep. Wayne McMahen, R-Minden; Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport; Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; Rep. Larry Selders, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner; Sen. Stewart Cathey, Jr., R-Monroe; Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek; Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma; Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe; Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales; Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge; and Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg.

WOULD NOT SAY (14): Rep. Ryan Bourriaque, R-Abbeville; Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette; Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles; Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Rep. Jonathan Goudeau, R-Lafayette; Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton; Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath; Rep. Buddy Mincey Jr., R-Denham Springs; Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine; Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley; Rep. Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles; Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; and Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

NO RESPONSE (1): Rep. Foy Gadberry, R-West Monroe.

Capitol news bureau writers Will Sentell, Tyler Bridges, Sam Karlin and Mark Ballard contributed to this report. 


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