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Idaho GOP senators deny session to ban worker vaccine rules

July 16, 2021 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republicans in the Idaho Senate are declining to reconvene the Legislature amid calls for legislation to prevent employers from requiring workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations, lawmakers said Friday.

Republican Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder and other leaders in a statement said they want meetings with Republican Gov. Brad Little, House leaders and businesses to find solutions.

“As Senate Republicans we hold firm the belief that state government should not overregulate business, however, individual liberties must be protected to ensure Idahoans are able to work and provide for their families,” the group said.

The statement followed an unusual online meeting of Senate Republicans on Friday to determine their wishes about a special session.

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Primary Health Group, Saint Alphonsus Health System and St. Luke’s Health System announced the vaccine requirement last week ahead of the busy cold and flu season and as coronavirus variants spread in parts of the U.S. Health officials in Idaho said vaccine requirements are intended to keep health care facilities open and employees and patients safe.

The delta variant first detected in India has recently been discovered in Idaho. It spreads more easily because of mutations, which make it better at latching onto cells.

Also, Idaho’s vaccination rate is among the worst in the nation, with only about 40% of the population having received at least one dose of vaccine. About 38% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

As of Friday, about 56% of people in the U.S. have received at lease one dose of vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 48% have completed their vaccination.

Some lawmakers have noted that health care facilities could face liability if a patient gets COVID-19 from one of its employees.

Those opposed to vaccine mandates argue the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not moved the coronavirus vaccines from emergency use authorization status to full approval yet.

Pfizer on Friday announced U.S. regulators agreed to a “priority review” of whether its COVID-19 vaccine should be fully approved, with a decision set for no later than January, but it could come much sooner.

More than 186 million doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have been administered in the U.S. since December. Vaccines cleared for emergency use still must undergo the stringent full approval process, a step that might help persuade some people who aren’t yet immunized to roll up their sleeves.

Little previously said that he needs to know more about the mandatory vaccine issue, but his default position is that it’s usually best for employees and employers to work out disagreements, the Lewiston Tribune reported.

Some far-right Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running for governor, have called for a special session.

The Joint Democratic Caucus on Thursday announced its opposition to reconvening the Legislature over the matter.

“The current policies have off-ramps and exemptions already in place,” the caucus said in a statement. “Hospitals have a responsibility to all who enter their businesses, whether someone has a heart attack, a serious COVID infection, or a vaccination reaction.”

The House never fully adjourned earlier this year under a plan to allow Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke to simply call lawmakers back to the Statehouse in Boise without needing Little’s approval.

Typically, only governors can call special sessions. There is some disagreement among legal experts over whether the Legislature is still in session because the Senate officially adjourned, while the House only recessed. But lawmakers appear to be proceeding on the belief that the Legislature is only recessed.

Winder and Bedke have been noncommittal about reconvening the Legislature over the vaccine mandate.

Even with no special session or reconvening of the Legislature this year, lawmakers could still take up the matter when the Legislature meets again early next year.

“Business thrives when government involvement is limited, and it is our hope that this issue can be resolved before more regulation, as the result of legislation, needs to be considered,” Republican Senate leaders said in the statement.