PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to permanently bar health officials from requiring students be vaccinated against COVID to attend public schools.
A 5-3 party-line vote Wednesday by the Republican-led Senate Committee on Health and Human Services sends the measure, House Bill 2086, to the full Senate, as the House already approved it.
The vote came despite the fact parents already have the ability to opt out of any vaccines listed as required for students. There are not only medical or religious exemptions, but also the option for parents to simply say the vaccination is against their personal beliefs, a right that does not exist in most other states.
But Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said there is no reason parents should have to take action to opt out of the COVID vaccine. The exemption process is meant to deal with regular childhood diseases such as measles and mumps, she said.
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“This is a virus,” she said. “This is not a childhood disease.”
The laws allowing parents to refuse to get their children vaccinated against the now-listed diseases also prohibit students who lack proof of immunization from attending school during outbreaks of communicable diseases. But HB 2086 contains no such prohibition.
Osborne told lawmakers she’s not an “anti-vaxxer.” She said she has lost friends to COVID and urged her 92-year-old mother-in-law to get inoculated against the virus.
“We know that, for our older generation, that this (vaccine) is going to help them, this is going to keep them out of the hospital,” Osborne said. “They may still get COVID, but this is more than likely going to keep them out of the hospital.”
But she said the situation is different for children, who are less likely to die from the virus, but have suffered adverse reactions.
Wednesday’s vote came over the objections of Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
Humble, a former state health director, pointed out there is no requirement now for students to be vaccinated against COVID. He detailed the process health officials would have to undertake, including public hearings, to add COVID to the list of mandated vaccines for school attendance.
“This is a tried-and-true process that has worked for a long time and we should trust the process,” he said.
Humble acknowledged that, in general, children were not affected by the coronavirus in its early stages. But he said that changed as new variants developed, saying they are “more challenging for kids.”
The latest figures from the Arizona Department of Health Services show that 63 of the state’s 28,883 deaths from COVID were of people age 20 and younger. Out of nearly 2 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, more than 425,000 were in children.
Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, said the language in the measure is consistent with provisions in the Parents’ Bill of Rights that’s in Arizona statutes. Among those rights is the right to make health-care decisions for a minor child.
Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, said she’s not convinced the ability of parents to opt out is sufficient.
“It shouldn’t be an exception for parents to have rights as to what their child should receive,” she said. “This is an experimental inoculation which has had severe effects in and of itself.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far approved the Pfizer vaccine for children younger than 15 only under its “experimental use authorization,” though the agency required extensive clinical trials and has said the vaccine has proven safe and effective.
Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said that in just the first few months of the Pfizer vaccine being available there were more than 1,100 deaths.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reported in June 2021 that there had been about 4,500 deaths after people were vaccinated, about 80% among people 60 and older, though the agency said there were no unusual patterns that suggested a link to the vaccine itself.
“This is a balance,” Barto said. “And we have to make sure that parents have the ultimate right to guide their children’s health and safety.”
There is a precedent of sorts for the measure. Lawmakers previously voted to bar the health department from requiring immunization for the human papilloma virus as a condition for attending school.
But Humble pointed out that HPV group of related viruses, which can cause warts, is generally spread through direct sexual contact with someone who has the virus. By contrast, he said, COVID is airborne.
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 email@example.com.