AZ Senate advances bill to bar COVID vaccine requirements for public schools
State lawmakers are moving to permanently bar health officials from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend public schools.
The 5-3 party-line vote on HB 2086 ON Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services came despite the fact that parents already have the ability to opt out of any of the vaccines that are now listed as required for students. That includes not only medical or religious exemptions but also the ability for parents to simply say it is against their personal beliefs, a right that does not exist in most other states.
But Rep. Joanne Osborne (R-Goodyear) said there is no reason for parents to have to take that action. She said the exemption process is meant to deal with regular childhood diseases like measles and mumps.
"This is a virus," she said. "This is not a childhood disease."
The laws allowing parents to refuse to get their children vaccinated against the now-listed diseases also prohibits students who lack proof of immunization from attending school during outbreaks of communicable diseases. But HB 2086, if it becomes law, contains no such prohibition.
Osborne told lawmakers she's not an "anti-vaxxer." In fact, she said she has lost friends to COVID-19 and urged her 92-year-old mother-in-law to get inoculated against the virus.
"We know that, for our older generation, that this is going to help them, this is going to keep them out of the hospital," Osborne said. "They may still get COVID, but this is more than likely going to keep them out of the hospital."
But she said this is different with children who are less likely to die from the virus but have suffered adverse reactions.
Wednesday's vote came over the objections of Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
Humble, the former state health director, pointed out that there is no such requirement now for a COVID-19 vaccine. And he detailed the process which health officials would have to undertake to add COVID-19 to the list of mandated vaccines for school attendance, including public hearings.
"This is a tried-and-true process that has worked for a long time and we should trust the process," he said.
Humble acknowledged that, in general, children were not affected by the virus in its early stages. But he said that has changed as new variants have developed, saying they are "more challenging for kids.”
The latest figures from the Department of Health Services show that 63 of the 28,883 deaths from COVID-19 have been to those 20 and younger. And the agency says that out of nearly 2 million cases since the outbreak, more than 425,000 were in children.
Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, said the language in the measure is consistent with provisions in the Parents' Bill of Rights that exist in Arizona statutes. Among those rights is the right to make healthcare decisions for the minor child.
Sen. Wendy Rogers (R-Flagstaff) she's not convinced that the ability of parents to opt out is sufficient.
"It shouldn't be an exception for parents to have rights as to what their child should receive," she said. "This is an experimental inoculation which has had severe effects in and of itself."
The Food and Drug Administration has so far approved the Pfizer vaccine for children younger than 15 only under its "experimental use authorization," though the agency did require extensive clinical trials and has said it has proven to be safe and effective. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said that in just the first few months of the Pfizer vaccine being available there were more than 1,100 deaths.
The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reported in June 2021 that there had been about 4,500 deaths after people had been vaccinated, about 80% among people 60 and older, though the agency said there were no unusual patterns that suggest a link to the vaccine itself.
"This is a balance," Barto said. "And we have to make sure that parents have the ultimate right to guide their children's health and safety."
There is a precedent of sorts for the measure. Lawmakers have previously voted to bar the health department from requiring immunization for the human papilloma virus as a condition for attending school. But Humble pointed out that group of related viruses which can cause warts on different parts of a body are generally spread through direct sexual contact with someone who has the virus. By contrast, he said, COVID-19 is airborne.
The measure, which already has been approved by the House, now goes to the full Senate.
Diseases for which vaccines currently required for school entry in Arizona:
- Hepatis B
- Varicella (chicken pox)
- Meningococcal disease
Source: Arizona Department of Health Services