INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican lawmakers advanced a proposal Thursday that would severely limit Indiana workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements, arguing it is time to rely on personal responsibility and protections such as immunity from a previous infection.
The Republican-dominated Indiana House could debate approving the business vaccine mandate limitations next week after a committee endorsed the bill in a 7-4 vote Thursday, just two days after this year’s legislative session opened. The fast-track House action comes even though Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP Senate leaders have opposed the bill as wrongly interfering in the decisions of private businesses.
The committee approved changes making anyone fired for not getting a COVID-19 vaccination eligible for unemployment benefits and forcing employers to accept as a vaccine exemption a worker’s medical test results showing some level of immunity through a previous infection. Medical studies have cast doubt on the idea of natural immunity as a stand-in for vaccines.
Required exemptions for medical or religious reasons were already included in the bill.
Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne said a company could require someone claiming immunity from a previous infection to provide proof from another test no more once every six months. If those tests don’t show the presence of antibodies, then “you’ll be back and subject to the other exemptions because you can’t show that immunity,” Lehman said.
The House action follows conservative criticism of President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirements for certain workers and two lengthy public hearings dominated by grievances over government-ordered virus precautions. Health experts argued that the limitations would hurt efforts to stem COVID-19 spread while the state’s hospitals are strained with their highest-ever overall patient counts.
The fast-spreading omicron variant has pushed Indiana’s number of confirmed COVID-19 infections to an average of nearly 10,000 a day, according to state Health Department tracking. That is the highest level during the pandemic as Indiana’s hospitals were treating about 3,300 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday — a number that is up about 170% from two months ago and the highest since mid-December 2020 before the vaccines were widely available.
Health officials on Thursday added 150 COVID-19 deaths, most occurring over the past three weeks, to Indiana’s death toll. The state has averaged more than 40 such deaths a day since early December, and the pandemic total has reached almost 19,500.
Indiana’s vaccination rate has stagnated for months despite pleas from Holcomb and medical groups for more people to get the shots. Indiana has the country’s ninth lowest rate for a fully vaccinated population at 52.1%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said people need to take responsibility for protecting themselves against COVID-19 and that he didn’t believe businesses could rely on vaccinations to prevent spread among their employees.
“I think what we now have seen is that there was a belief that if we all got vaccinated, we could stop the spread, right? And we aren’t stopping the spread,” Huston said. “Vaccination protects me. It protects me. It doesn’t mean that I can’t give it to you.”