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Indiana GOP bill stymies workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Eric Holcomb
Posted at 5:12 PM, Nov 22, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s governor held back Monday from supporting a proposal by fellow Republicans that would force businesses to grant COVID-19 vaccination requirement exemptions without any questions and block similar immunization rules set by state universities.

The proposal, first released Saturday by leaders of the Republican-dominated Legislature, would reject an appeal from the state’s largest business organization to leave such decisions up to employers and strike against Indiana University’s student vaccine mandate that a U.S. Supreme Court justice let go into effect.

That proposal includes three administrative actions sought last week by Gov. Eric Holcomb that he said would allow him to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020, even amid a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Indiana and other Midwestern states. But it goes further by including provisions that would give workers broad exemptions from employer vaccine mandates amid a national conservative pushback against President Joe Biden’s mandates.

Holcomb has criticized Biden’s vaccine requirements for businesses, saying he supports the rights of businesses to make their own decisions.The governor didn’t directly answer whether he had discussed the vaccine requirement limits included in the bill before legislative leaders released the draft and said he wanted time to talk with them about it.

“I want to hear where they’re coming from, what their thoughts are,” Holcomb said. “We need to talk about the whole bill in detail, as well. But I’m very pleased that they included my three items that show a way for us to land this ship.”

Holcomb asked lawmakers last week to approve steps that would allow the state to keep receiving enhanced federal funding for Medicaid expenses and those eligible for food assistance programs, along with allowing the state health commissioner to issue a standing doctor’s order allowing pharmacists to administer COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston has said he believed “we need to move forward” after so much time under the public health emergency, which is set to expire Dec. 1.

Conservatives are pushing for that step despite health experts warning of ongoing danger as people spend more time inside. Indiana hospitals had about 1,700 COVID-19 patients admitted as of Sunday — a roughly 40% increase from two weeks earlier after declines from a summer surge peak of nearly 2,700 patients in September, according to the state health department.

The bill is set on an extraordinary fast track for approval, with a single public hearing scheduled for Tuesday at the Statehouse followed by the House and Senate voting on final approval six days later on Nov. 29. The Legislature wasn’t set to resume its session until early January.

Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar questioned the need to push the vote through immediately after the Thanksgiving Day holiday. He said the state’s largest business group opposed Biden’s vaccine mandate and the state-level reaction.

“We believe that that should be the employer’s choice to determine what’s best and what’s safest, and what’s needed for their employees, their customers and their patients in their health care facility,” Brinegar said.

The Republican proposal would allow employees to exempt themselves from a workplace COVID-19 vaccine requirement by submitting from an authorized health professional that the person has a medical reason not to be vaccinated, including “pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy.”

Exemptions would also be granted if the employee provides a written statement declining the vaccine “because of a sincerely held religious belief.” The bill would also allow people who have recovered from COVID-19 infections to obtain exemptions, embracing the belief of natural immunity as a stand-in for vaccines — even though medical studies have found vaccines offer greater protection.

The proposal states a business must allow employees to claim exemption “without further inquiry.” It allows businesses to require COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated employees no more than once a week, but that testing must be provided at no cost to the employee.

Another provision adds the state-funded universities and public school districts to the list of government-related entities covered by a state law Republicans pushed through in April banning state or local governments from requiring vaccine passports.

Indiana University faced conservative backlash after it announced in May that it would require COVID-19 vaccinations for all its roughly 90,000 students and 40,000 employees.

In response, IU made providing proof of vaccination optional. About 12,000 exemptions have been issued from the requirement, about three-quarters for religious reasons. School officials report about 90% of students and 94% of employees statewide are at least partially vaccinated.

IU spokesman Chuck Carney said university officials were reviewing the proposal and that they weren’t certain how it would affect the school’s policy. Federal judges have upheld the policy after students filed a lawsuit. They are pursuing appeals.