LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the two weeks since the Kentucky General Assembly returned to Frankfort for the 2022 legislative session, COVID-19 has surged in the commonwealth like never before. Despite case counts setting records, school districts returning to nontraditional instruction, and hospital admissions rising, some state legislators are pushing bills that would restrict the best available tool to beat back the pandemic — vaccines.
Republican lawmakers have filed several pieces of legislation that would ban employers, governmental entities, and colleges from mandating COVID-19 vaccines and legislation to ban businesses from requiring customers to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Public health officials said these measures would make it more difficult for the state to protect the vulnerable and fight off the pandemic, while also further politicizing what should be a public health issue.
“Vaccine requirements are one of the No. 1 public health measures we have,” said Dr. Sarah Moyer, the Director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. “Good research shows that it is the only thing sometimes that motivates people to get vaccinated.”
Vaccinations are key right now in Kentucky. The state is currently seeing its worst ever COVID-19 case surge and hospitals continue to fill up, nearing the record highs set late last summer. But only 63% of the state is vaccinated, with the 37% of unvaccinated people accounting for a disproportionate share of those hospitalized with COVID.
House Bill 28, which has 21 Republican sponsors, would enact a host of measures to limit vaccines, including requiring private employers to allow workers to opt out of any required immunization “based on religious grounds or conscientiously held beliefs.” House Bill 198 would also require all employer-vaccination policies to include those same opt outs, along with another for "proof of COVID-19 immunity." These would effectively ban vaccine mandates.
House Bill 28 would also ban discrimination based on “immunization status” and allow parents to decline mandatory vaccination of their children for “conscientiously held beliefs.” Currently, medical and religious exemptions are available for otherwise mandatory vaccines.
The Foundation for Healthy Kentucky is “opposed to preempting vaccine mandates,” said Allison Adams, the group’s vice president for policy. She said vaccine mandates are “good public health policy” that have prevented Kentuckians from severe illness and death from highly infectious diseases such as measles, mumps and polio.
“We believe local municipalities and businesses should be permitted to make those decisions that best suit their community,” Adams said.
Another piece of legislation, House Bill 21, would ban schools, governmental bodies, and private businesses from asking about vaccination status before allowing someone entrance. This type of screening has become common at some performance venues. House Bill 57, meanwhile, would prohibit public universities in Kentucky from requiring any vaccinations that are not already required by law.
Rep. Lynn Bechler (R-Marion) is a sponser of House Bills, 21, 28, and 57. Asked why he supports banning vaccine mandates, he attacked the vaccines themselves.
"It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the so called vaccines do not work," Bechler wrote in an email. "A vaccine provides immunity against a disease but the shots officials are attempting to require do not offer immunity. People who have received the shots, including the booster, are still getting COVID."
While it's true that people who have been vaccinated can get COVID, they are less likely to contract the virus and less likely to get severely ill if they do.
“Kentucky is one of many state legislatures considering anti-mandate bills for COVID-19 vaccines in 2022,” said Patrick Plues, who tracks anti-vaccine legislation for Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He said more than 1,300 vaccine-related bills were considered by state legislators in 2021, adding that “anti-mandate sentiment around vaccines is skyrocketing.”
“Unfortunately, vaccine mandates are becoming increasingly politicized and we expect to continue to see anti-mandate legislation grow as the state legislative session continues,” he said.
Indeed, the politicization of vaccines and vaccine mandates is clear in Kentucky, where a poll last April found that more than three times as many Republicans than Democrats were unwilling to get vaccinated.
Adams, from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine was unexpected. “I don't think anyone was ready for worry about protecting the health and safety of other people being a political issue,” she said.
But she also pointed to another poll from the Foundation that found that 80% of Kentuckians agree that being vaccinated is important for the health of others in the community. She said that shows Kentuckians “believe these vaccines are helpful” and she would like the legislature to remember that and focus on the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines, not any remote risk.
It's unclear what chance the anti-vaccine legislation has to become law. Only nine states currently require private businesses to include exemptions in their vaccine mandates, according to the National Academy for State Healthy Policy. Twenty-one states, meanwhile, have banned proof-of-vaccine requirements.