Medical groups argue against Indiana vaccine mandate limits

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued Tuesday against a Republican proposal aimed at ending the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency and forcing broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements.

The proposed changes to state law faced criticism during a legislative committee hearing that it wrongly sends a message that the coronavirus pandemic is over at a time when Indiana’s infections and hospitalizations are rising again.

Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman presented the proposal as a step toward protecting individual rights by allowing workers to claim medical or religious exemptions if their employers required COVID-19 vaccinations.

That proposal includes three administrative actions sought last week by Gov. Eric Holcomb that he said would allow him to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020, but it goes further amid a national conservative pushback against President Joe Biden’s proposed vaccination mandates on large businesses.

Lehman said he believed the Republican-dominated Legislature should act quickly to prevent workers from being fired as Democrats questioned why GOP leaders were trying to force it through with final votes set for Monday — nine days after the proposal was released on Saturday. The Legislature wasn’t set to resume its session until early January.

“I’ve had people that are saying “I’m on the chopping block,’” Lehman said. “This can’t wait until January. I think we need to take this action now.”

Representatives of the Indiana Medical Association, Indiana Hospital Association and other medical groups argued the proposal would discourage attempts to increase the state’s COVID vaccination rate and limit hospitalizations and deaths.

Indiana hospitals had about 1,760 COVID-19 patients admitted as of Monday — a roughly 45% increase from two weeks earlier after declines from a summer surge peak of nearly 2,700 patients in September, according to the state health department. Indiana has continued averaging about 20 deaths a day from COVID-19.

Indiana State Medical Association representative Dr. Stephen Tharp, who is the Clinton County health officer, said the group believed the bill would hurt attempts to get more people vaccinated, prolonging harm to the economy and health care system.

“We all want this pandemic to end,” Tharp said. “But we see patients every day who would have benefitted from vaccines.”

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranking Indiana’s 50.5% rate of fully vaccinated people as the country’s 11th lowest vaccination mark, Holcomb disputed arguments that ending the state’s public health emergency order would signal that the pandemic’s risk had passed.

“I hope it sends the message that if you get vaccinated, the odds of you ending up in the hospital or worse go way down,” the Republican governor said Monday. “A large number of people in Indiana, across the country and world have done just that, and they’re avoiding dire consequences.”

Indiana law generally currently allows businesses to hire or fire non-union workers for any reason unless it is in violation of anti-discrimination laws covering factors such as age, gender or race. State law also requires K-12 students and those at state residential colleges to get immunized for several diseases, including diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and meningitis.

Major business organizations argued against the proposed vaccination exemptions, which employers would have to accept from workers “without further inquiry.” The head of the state chamber of commerce said the proposal “significantly discourages” employers from requiring vaccines even if they believe it is best for their employees and customers.

Many people testifying during the more than six-hour-long hearing spoke against encouraging COVD-19 vaccines, arguing against the proposed federal mandates, questioning the effectiveness of face mask use and maintaining that natural immunity from COVID-19 infections was the best protection.

Several nurses and health care workers told lawmakers about facing job losses because their requests for religious exemptions have been denied, saying they worried about hospitals losing so many workers that there will be too few available to treat patients.

Kristi Grabowski of Anderson said her husband was at risk of being fired for not getting the vaccine shots and that lawmakers shouldn’t approve “half measures” instead of outright terminating the governor’s COVID-19 executive orders.

“Gov. Holcomb is not a king. It is your job to remind him of that,” Grabowski said. “Hoosiers’ medical liberty must not be tied to federal purse strings.”