Lawmakers debated a bill to prevent employers from implementing vaccine mandates and firing individuals due to their vaccination status. Two Republican lawmakers, both medical doctors, landed on opposite sides of the issue. Sen. Mark Steffen, a medical doctor and Republican from Hutchinson, sponsored the legislation. 

He told members of the Senate Commerce Committee that the proposal accomplishes two things. First, it protects the freedom of individuals. Second, it relieves the employers of liability if an employee suffers an adverse effect from a vaccine. 

Proponents focused primarily on COVID-19 vaccinations and their safety profiles. Opponents of the legislation focused primarily on the rights of business owners to make their own rules.

“They’re going to look at this from a societal standpoint and not an individual standpoint,” Steffen said of the opposition. “Vaccines do help protect society, but that means you’re going to sacrifice a few individuals in the process.”

Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison doctor, said the judiciary often upholds vaccine mandates. He worried the legislation poses a no-win situation for the healthcare officials.

“Why would government, in this case, state government, pre-empt decisions of the business community and in particular the healthcare industry?” Eplee said. “As a hospital CEO, your facility may get sued if you insist all employees get a vaccine or you can just get sued by vulnerable patients in your hospital who become ill by unvaccinated employees. This is the ultimate no-win situation.”

Proponents argue for individual autonomy

If adopted, the legislation applies to all vaccines, but the COVID-19 vaccine mandates spurred most of the debate during last week’s committee hearing. Currently, Kansas is administering approximately 15,173 COVID-19 vaccine doses per day, according to Bloomberg’s tracker. Two COVID-19 vaccines, created by Moderna and Pfizer, were authorized for emergency use as the committee debated the proposal. Over the weekend, however, U.S. officials authorized for emergency use a third vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. 

Steffen said the long-term safety profiles of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are unknown. 

“Most importantly, a large population of our society is at very small risk of an adverse outcome from contracting and recovering from COVID-19,” Steffen said. “It’s far more likely that the vaccine won’t convey any immunity for you than it is for most of our population to have a problem from catching the virus.”

Eplee agreed that there are ethical and legal concerns about a vaccine mandate that receives only emergency-use authorization from the Federal Drug Administration rather than full Biologic License Application approval. 

“On the other hand, we are rapidly approaching 40 million vaccines administered without serious complication,” he said.

Proponents fear for livelihoods in addition to adverse effects of the vaccine

Dawn Richardson, the director of advocacy for the National Vaccine Information Center, said employees shouldn’t face discrimination or the threat of termination for refusing to take a vaccine.

“Law-abiding healthy citizens shouldn’t be backed into a corner to have to choose between providing for their families and taking a vaccine,” she said.

She said COVID-19 vaccine mandates are already happening. She noted that Atria Senior Living is mandating the vaccine as a condition of employment. A Wisconsin nursing home eliminated staff who refused the vaccine, and a mayor in Pennsylvania issued an executive order that required vaccinations for all city employees. She said her organization reached out to hundreds of people asking if they wanted to share testimony, and everyone declined out of fear of retribution from their employers. Two nurses offered written testimony anonymously.

“It is time for the government to stop taking away rights of the individual,” one nurse wrote. “For the greater good is not a valid reason to force someone to inject a substance into their body against their will.”

Richardson said nothing in medicine is one-size-fits-all, including vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control recommends 20 different vaccines, not including the COVID vaccines. Richardson said they are all candidates for employment mandates.

Business interests oppose government mandate

Eric Stafford, vice president of government affairs at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber believes in the right of employers to determine their own policies for employees. He noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to mandate vaccinations. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does the same. The EEOC guidelines allow exemptions for religious and health reasons.

“Contrary to the impetus behind this bill of preventing employers from mandating vaccines, we would oppose legislation that mandated employers to have employees vaccinated,” he said. “These decisions are best left to employers and their employees as each situation, exposure risk and health status is different.”

Several opponents mentioned nursing homes as specific instances where vaccine mandates may be warranted.

The EEOC ruled that employers can mandate COVID-19 testing as a condition of employment. Eplee said vaccines are likely to follow.

“The compromise likely resides in mandates in certain sectors of business and government with exemptions for religious or medical reasons,” Eplee said.

The debate over vaccine mandates takes place while Kansas is among the worst states for distributing vaccines and may have unused vaccines sitting on shelves.

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