Indiana legislators still seek deal to end COVID-19 order
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana legislative leaders’ efforts to approve administrative steps that Gov. Eric Holcomb has said are necessary to end his statewide COVID-19 public health emergency declaration remain caught in a debate over whether the state should limit businesses from imposing workplace vaccination requirements.
An attempt to fast-track a proposal through the Legislature failed after Holcomb outlined in November his requested actions and he has since issued three monthlong renewals of the emergency declaration. The Republican governor said this week he will do so again if legislative approval isn’t completed by the current order’s March 4 expiration.
The Republican-dominated state Senate could vote as soon as Monday on a bill that includes Holcomb’s request but without the provisions pushed by GOP House members that would force businesses to give requested religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine requirements “without further inquiry.”
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said Thursday that “you can count on it” when asked whether lawmakers would approve a bill addressing the emergency declaration by the current order’s March 4 expiration.
Holcomb has sought legal changes that would enable the state to keep receiving about $40 million a month in enhanced federal funding for Medicaid and for about 200,000 households to continue receiving an additional $95 a month in federal food assistance. Another step would let the state health commissioner continuing issuing a standing doctor’s order for the administration of COVID-19 vaccinations to children ages 5 to 11.
Holcomb and Senate GOP leaders have sided with major business groups opposing those requirements as wrongly interfering in business decisions.
The current Senate proposal would require businesses to grant medical vaccine exemptions to workers along with religious exemptions as required by federal law and mandate that employers accept as a vaccine exemption a worker’s medical test results showing some level of “natural immunity” through a previous infection.
Senators on Thursday restored provisions specifying that anyone fired for not getting a COVID-19 vaccination would be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Holcomb said he was “anxious” to end the public health declaration, which he first issued in March 2020, but was still talking with lawmakers about the bill’s final form.
“We’ll see what gets added to that list of three (actions), whether it makes a difference in my support or not,” Holcomb said.
Indiana’s COVID-19 situation has changed drastically since lawmakers began debating the business vaccine issue in November, when the state was experiencing a steep increase in hospitalizations and deaths from the illness.
The total COVID-19 patients at Indiana hospitals has dropped to about 1,000 people, down more than two-thirds from mid-January’s peak of about 3,500, according to state health department tracking. Indiana’s rate of COVID-19 deaths is now about 30 a day, down from about 75 a day about a month ago.
Both rates, however, are far above those in July when Indiana had about 400 COVID-19 hospitalizations and was averaging fewer than five daily deaths.
The U.S. Supreme Court also has blocked President Joe Biden’s proposed mandate that would have required large employers to have their workers be vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19, while allowing vaccine requirement for healthcare workers to go forward.
Huston said those factors had taken some of the urgency off the vaccine requirement debate.
“There’s more clarity. We want to make sure there’s still protections for individuals,” Huston said. “The temperature has been dropped on that issue a little bit and we just want to make sure we get to the right long-term policy.”