PHOENIX — State senators voted Tuesday to forever bar the Arizona Department of Health Services from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school.
The 16-14 party-line vote, with all Republicans in favor, came despite the fact there is currently no such vaccination mandate. The bill, House Bill 2086, now goes to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
It was one of three COVID-related measures approved Tuesday by the Senate.
Lawmakers also voted to make it illegal for any level of government that gets public funds to require visitors to wear a mask or any face covering.
That measure, HB 2453, already approved in similar form by the House, contains an exception for “long-standing workplace safety and infection control measures that are unrelated to COVID-19.’’
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Senators also took aim at the vaccines for the virus, at least as they relate to children.
HB 2371 would make it a crime for government agencies to require anyone younger than 18 to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or any variant without the consent of a parent or guardian. It would allow county attorneys to prosecute anyone who violated the law.
Those two bills now return to the House for consideration of changes made in the Senate versions.
Schools and COVID
The debate Tuesday on the Senate floor was about the measure to ban any COVID vaccination requirement for school attendance.
It also would prohibit schools from requiring students to be immunized against COVID to attend in-person classes.
The measure was written by Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear.
“This is not a childhood disease,’’ she said in February, when pushing the plan through the House Health and Human Services Committee, which she chairs.
The current school requirements for vaccination cover diseases ranging from mumps and rubella to chickenpox and measles.
Osborne made it clear her bill has a message beyond the vaccine itself. “We just have got to stop fear from being continuously in our children’s minds,’’ she said.
But Sen. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, in voting against the measure on Tuesday, said there is no need for such an absolute prohibition.
She cited testimony from Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, who pointed out that the state health director — a position he previously held — cannot simply add a vaccine to the list of what is required for school attendance.
“They have to go through an 18-month-long process that involves a large amount of public testimony and economic impact evaluation,’’ Teran said.
She told colleagues they should not be making a political decision on the issue.
“The purpose behind a vaccine requirement is to keep kids in school, keep them healthy and stop outbreaks,’’ Teran said. She said having more children vaccinated increases the chances of “herd immunity,’’ where enough people are inoculated to help prevent spread among those who have medical reasons why they cannot get vaccinated.
Arizona already has among the “most permissive’’ laws allowing parents to opt out of childhood vaccines, Teran said. These include exemptions for medical and religious reasons and allowing parents to sign a form saying they have a personal objection.
On governor’s desk
Ducey already has signed various COVID-related restrictions that have reached his desk.
Those include one that bars local governments from imposing mask mandates on residents, a second that says private businesses don’t have to enforce state or local mask mandates for their patrons, and a third that bans schools from requiring students to wear masks in class.
But the issue of school immunizations could meet a different fate.
In 2019, pre-COVID-19, Ducey threatened to veto legislation that he said would undermine efforts to vaccinate most children in the state.
“Vaccinations are good for our kids and helpful for public health,’’ Ducey said then when asked about three bills being pushed by then-Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix. “I’m not going to sign any law that doesn’t promote or extend vaccinations in the state of Arizona.’’
That gubernatorial warning was enough to kill the proposals before they ever got to his desk.
The bills by Barto, who is now a state senator, differed in ways from HB 2086.
She had sought to make it even easier for parents to opt out of existing requirements for student vaccinations to attend school. By contrast, the bill now headed to Ducey deals with an immunization requirement that does not yet exist.
Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karmargin would not discuss the possible fate of HB 2086. “We don’t comment on legislation until we see it,’’ he said.
That, however, is not always true.
When asked about those Barto bills in 2019, Ducey said he normally does not comment on measures moving through the Legislature.
“But because this involves public health, I think it’s important for people to know we are pro-vaccination in the state of Arizona,’’ he said at the time. “We want to see more of our kids being vaccinated rather than fewer.’’
Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has been reporting since 1970 and covering state politics and the Legislature since 1982. Follow him on Twitter at “@azcapmedia” or email firstname.lastname@example.org.