Vaccine requirement for Louisiana schools draws GOP wrath

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Louisiana’s Republican legislative leaders are outraged about a plan by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to start requiring some students to get the coronavirus vaccination or submit a written dissent to attend school.

The mandate, which has not yet taken effect, would apply only to students whose age groups are fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to receive the shot. For now, that includes high school students age 16 and older.

But if the FDA eventually grants full backing to the immunizations for younger children, that vaccination requirement would expand to lower grades and day care facilities, under the health department plan.

Whenever the vaccination requirement begins, parents could opt-out of the requirement by signing a simple statement of exemption.

Still, news of the forthcoming rule aroused anger among high-ranking GOP state lawmakers, who described the proposal as an example of government overreach.

“This is a line in the sand that will not be crossed,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican, texted lawmakers Saturday. 

GOP Sen. Bodi White, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, called the proposal an “intimidation tactic.” He threatened to “take action that will severely affect their budget” if the Louisiana Department of Health moves forward with the vaccine requirement.

The health department submitted public notification to lawmakers in September that it intended to add the coronavirus vaccine to its state-mandated immunization schedule. Under Louisiana law, the House and Senate health committees can only block such a rule from taking effect if they both vote to reject it and the governor agrees with them, which is not likely. 

Edwards told The Advocate it would be “inappropriate, unfortunate and dangerous” to keep the coronavirus vaccines available with full FDA approval off the state’s immunization schedule.

“Typically, when the FDA gives full licensure or full approval to a vaccine, we will add it to the schedule, and that’s what we’re doing here through a formal rule-making process,” Edwards said after speaking at a vaccination event.

Even if lawmakers can’t block the new rule, the House health committee intends to hold a hearing Dec. 6 to register its complaints. 

To enter kindergarten, for example, students must be vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, chickenpox, hepatitis B, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella. Another round of shots is required before entering sixth grade. 

But Louisiana offers broad exemptions and the state Department of Education provides a stock exemption form online.

“All of the opt-out provisions that are in law around the other vaccines will pertain to this one as well,” Edwards says.

Some lawmakers say that because the coronavirus vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing someone from contracting the COVID-19 disease, it does not belong on the state’s immunization schedule. Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, argued that “an immunization, by definition, means you’re immune and can’t get it.”

But Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, says none of the vaccines currently required for school entry meets that standard. However, the vaccines do offer substantial protection, particularly against the most severe outcomes of a disease, she said. Read the full story.