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Fast-Tracked COVID-19 Vaccination Exemption Bill Stalled As Opposition Mounted

Andy Chow
Statehouse News Bureau

House Republican leadership is expected to revisit their attempt to address COVID-19 vaccine mandates after failing to fast-track a new bill without public testimony. The latest proposal would grant exemptions to COVID vaccine mandates in state law.

Republican Representative Rick Carfagna told the House Health committee that the bill was a compilation of the different viewpoints legislators have heard over the last couple of months when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine policy.

"This legislation is sensible and responsible. It empowers Ohioans by ensuring the availability of clear, unambiguous COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions. It balances personal medical freedom and protecting the health and the safety of Ohioans."

The bill from Carfagna and Republican Representative Bill Seitz would put into Ohio law three exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in K-12 schools, or in private or public higher education institutions. The same exemptions would be extended to employees for private or public companies.

Those exemptions are:

  • Medical contraindications for people with an existing condition to which the vaccine would be harmful. 
  • Natural immunity, for people who have already had COVID-19 and can prove they still have the antibodies.
  • Reasons of conscience, for people who object to getting the shot for any reason with a special mention of religious conviction.

Democratic Representative Beth Liston, who's an active physician, says the legislature should be doing things to encourage people to get the vaccine and that this goes in the wrong direction.

"We're talking about removing tools that are important for keeping people safe and well, I am glad that the bill doesn't do everything in terms of undermining public health. It doesn't undermine some of the masks and distance and other things that we know that works. It's still telling people, well, if you don't want the vaccine, all you have to do is write it down on a piece of paper, even if that's going to endanger others. And I think that's a problem.

Seitz addressed in committee the question of someone being able to object to getting the vaccine for reasons of conscience without a required explanation of that "reason."

"Implicit in any transaction is the obligation of good faith. So I would hope that folks claiming a religious or conscience objection would be doing so in good faith."

There are exemptions to the exemptions. They would not apply to employees or students that work in children's hospitals, ICU, or critical care units. 

Another provision of the bill states that the exemptions only apply to people employed in their current job at the effective date of the bill.

"If that company is going to be hiring somebody after the effective date of the bill and they do have a vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine mandate in place, it will be applicable to that new hire without the exemptions. So that individual understands the terms of employment and can make that decision on their own, whether or not to accept those terms of employment."

After an hour and a half of testimony, the bill was voted out of committee, bound for the House floor.

Democratic Representative Allison Russo denounced the process saying Republicans were rushing through important legislation.

"It's just a very bad way to make public policy and I think is an insult to this institution."

As the vote moved closer, statements of opposition came out from influential business and health care groups. Even the Ohio Christian Alliance, which had sent out an email earlier in the week with instructions on requesting religious exemption forms said the bill needs “further review."

Although House Republican leadership wanted to put it on the floor, they pulled it at the last minute after members within the Republican caucus raised objections.

Republican Representative Ron Ferguson say they're optimistic a consensus can still be reached.

"But it's not quite there yet. And I think that we're going to continue to work on to firm it up and make sure it's exactly the right step.

The legislation will be re-referred to a House committee.