Indiana lawmakers take up vaccine limits amid COVID-19 surge

Some Indiana doctors and health experts warned Thursday that a Republican-backed proposal aimed at limiting workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements would hurt efforts to stem the illness as the state’s hospitals are strained with their highest-ever overall patient counts.

They were vastly outnumbered, however, by dozens of people during a nearly seven-hour-long legislative hearing on the bill who questioned the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, argued against the proposed federal vaccination mandates and brought up a litany of grievances about government-ordered lockdowns and mask requirements.

The House committee hearing was held as Republicans aim to quickly advance the proposal once the legislative session starts Jan. 4. The bill includes administrative actions that Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb says would allow him to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020.

House Republicans have taken up the effort they maintain would protect individual rights by forcing employers to grant exemptions to workers who claim medical or religious objections to any workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

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 would discourage employers from requiring vaccines even if they believe it is best for their workers and customers.

Dr. Gabriel Bosslet, an Indiana University Health critical care physician, told the committee that he’s seen people “die needlessly” because they didn’t get vaccinated and was frustrated with an intensive care unit where nearly all COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

“The message this bill sends is that vaccines are not important,” Bosslet said. “Vaccines are important. They are the only way to end this.”

Indiana is averaging about 35 COVID deaths per day this month and hospitalizations with the illness have topped 3,000 people this week for the first time in nearly a year amid the state’s ongoing infection surge, according to tracking by the state health department. That is up about 150% in the past five weeks and the most such patients since just before Christmas Day last year.

About a quarter of those patients are in hospital intensive care units. Those COVID cases and other severe illnesses have given the state’s hospitals their highest-ever total patient counts of about 12,000, according to the Indiana Hospital Association.

Republican leaders had planned an extraordinary fast-track approval of the vaccine requirement limitations but called off a planned one-day session for the Monday after Thanksgiving after similar testimony during a Nov. 23 hearing that divided medical and business groups from an array of vaccine objectors.

Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne, who is sponsoring the bill, described the measure Thursday as ensuring individual liberties so that people wouldn’t lose their jobs over not being willing to get the COVID-19 vaccination.

“We must protect Hoosier workers,” Lehman said. “The genesis of this, the reason that we need to continue, is that we need to make sure Hoosier workers are protected.”

Indiana has the country’s ninth lowest rate for a fully vaccinated population at 51.5%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eight rural counties scattered around the state have vaccination rates below 40%.

Holcomb has criticized President Joe Biden’s proposed vaccine requirements for businesses but hasn’t backed Lehman’s bill, saying he supports the rights of businesses to make their own decisions.

Holcomb has said he would end the statewide public health emergency if lawmakers approved steps that would allow the state to keep receiving enhanced federal funding for Medicaid expenses and those eligible for food assistance programs, along with allowing the state health commissioner to issue a standing doctor’s order for the administration of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11.

Holcomb said Wednesday he believed those items had “universal agreement” and should be dealt with separate from the vaccine requirement issue.

“Why not deal with what we agree on, get that out of the way and then have our discussion?” Holcomb said.

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