House committee rejects legislation limiting the state’s ability to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine

In this Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 file photo, a patient receives an influenza vaccine in...
In this Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 file photo, a patient receives an influenza vaccine in Mesquite, Texas. On Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, Alex Azar, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced that pharmacists in all 50 states will be authorized to give childhood vaccinations this fall, due to a federal order that will temporarily preempt pharmacy restrictions in 22 states.(Source: AP Photo/LM Otero)
Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 7:27 AM EDT
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A Virginia House committee voted down three bills on Tuesday that would have limited the state’s ability to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available.

A key focus of the failed legislation was a current law allowing the state’s health commissioner to require immediate immunization during a public health emergency, regardless of religious objections. The little-used code section made headlines earlier this week after Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said he had plans to mandate any future coronavirus vaccine  — a statement that was quickly walked back by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Bills from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, and Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, would have amended the code to allow for religious exemptions to vaccinations even during an epidemic. Cole’s was specifically tailored to the commissioner’s mandate powers, while LaRock’s would have also superseded the state Board of Health’s ability to mandate student vaccinations during an epidemic.

LaRock filed an additional bill that would have prohibited the state from requiring vaccinations developed without preclinical animal testing or derived from human fetal tissue. 

At least five potential COVID-19 vaccines use cells procured from elective abortions, which are also used in immunizations against chickenpox, hepatitis A, and other diseases. LaRock’s bill also would have prohibited the state from adding scheduled vaccines that modified human RNA or DNA — an apparent response to several false rumors about potential COVID-19 vaccines that have been shared online. 

Some vaccine candidates work by injecting a small segment of the virus’s genetic code to trigger an immune response. There is no vaccination that can modify a patient’s genetic information.

The latter bill failed 13-8 on a party-line vote, with Democratic legislators heavily criticizing sponsors for spreading doubts over the safety of vaccines. “It is irresponsible of us to be hijacking this very important policy conversation to undermine what we know is good science that has saved hundreds of millions of lives over the course of many decades,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who tested positive for coronavirus in late July. “It is clear that immunizations save lives and we need to be doing everything we can to protect people.”

Several legislators — and state health officials — also spoke against the first two bills, arguing that allowing religious exemptions during a public health emergency would undermine efforts to protect all Virginians. State epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said that more contagious diseases require a greater percentage of the population to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, which makes it harder for the disease to travel and spread from person to person.

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