As Iowa continues to fall behind national rates of COVID-19 vaccines administration, Republicans on Tuesday advanced a bill through a Senate subcommittee that would further protect non-vaccinated residents and prohibit vaccine mandates set by employers or health care systems.
Over 80 people joined an hours-long virtual meeting before the bill passed 2-1 with Republican Sens. Jim Carlin and Mark Costello in support of the legislation. Sen. Pam Jochum, a Democrat, voted against it.
“This is a difficult bill because I can definitely see both sides of it,” Costello said. “I think I’m going to sign off on the bill to keep the discussion going and maybe we’ll get a bill that we feel more comfortable with overall … I’ve received a very large number of emails in support of this bill. Very many people feel strongly about it.”
A number of concerned citizens and lobbyists for anti-vaccine organizations spoke out in support of the bill on account of “health care freedom,” while pediatricians, representatives for medical systems, nurses and local public health directors opposed the legislation and vouched for the COVID-19 vaccine’s efficacy and importance.
Iowa has lingered consistently near the bottom of all U.S. states in delivering vaccine doses to its people.
“We know that vaccines are the most safe, effective and one of the most powerful tools that we have to keep Iowans healthy. We agree that people need to make informed choices about their health care and we believe that the laws in place in Iowa already allow that,” said Lina Tucker Reinders, the executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association during the meeting.
“We do have medical exemption, which is important for people who do have reasons not to be vaccinated medically and we do have the religious exemption in Iowa. We know from other states that have passed the philosophical exemptions that vaccine … hesitancy increases and overall vaccine rates [decrease] when those laws are passed.”
Among other provisions, the bill bars health care providers, nursing homes, school systems and other workplaces from requiring their staff get the COVID-19 vaccine and makes it so an employer cannot refuse to hire or penalize an employee based on their vaccine history or refusal to receive the vaccine.
JD Davis, who spoke on behalf of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said the bill’s provision that bans employers from mandating vaccines would be harmful for businesses.
“I want to say that we recognize the right of any individual in Iowa to determine on their own whether or not they wish to be vaccinated for any disease,” he said. “We don’t think that the choice that’s been made in the bill to have the rights of the employee or prospective employee trump those of an employer. Decisions have consequences, and if someone decides that they wish not to have vaccinations, there are some consequences that they’re going to have to weigh when they make that decision.”
Under the bill, health care systems and long-term care facilities also cannot refuse patients based on the same reasons and insurers cannot reject, deny or increase premiums or limit coverage of health insurance for Iowans.
Dennis Tibben with the Iowa Medical Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke against the inability of health care providers to restrict their non-vaccinated employees and patients.
“We need to recognize in the health care setting it is a different set of circumstances, and putting in place that division we believe would unnecessarily restrict the ability for our health care setting to set up protocols to keep their patients safe,” he said.
The subcommittee to discuss the bill featured a long question and answer section between Carlin and Shanda Burke, a lobbyist for Informed Choice Iowa, a group that advocates against vaccine mandates.
Carlin consistently circled back to a story how when he was young, children only received around 2-3 vaccines, not the around 72 that students are now required. He linked a spike in pediatric illness, including autism, to this increase, a scientifically debunked theory.
“The risks—you read a package insert, which is the little itty bitty piece of paper that comes in the box with the vaccines … and the risks are very real. The flu shot for instance, the one that I was going to be required to have to do my job, seizures, death are all listed side effects,” Burke said.
Also on the call was state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati, who Sen. Jochum requested also answer some of the questions Carlin posed to Burke.
Pedati stressed the safety and indispensability of the COVID-19 vaccine, “absolutely critical public health tools.”
“Vaccines are very important, they’re safe, they’re critical lifesaving tools and I think there’s good data to show that when you increase things like exemptions, people do take advantage of them and it creates pockets of under-vaccinated or unvaccinated populations which can lead to the spread of infectious disease.”
Carlin also pressed Pedati on the potential link between autism and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and vaccines.
“There is absolutely no correlation between vaccination and autism,” Pedati said. “And I can tell you that with confidence as a pediatrician.”
by Isabella Murray
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