New COVID vaccine bill in Ohio allows exemptions for natural immunity, other reasons

Ohio Republicans unveiled Tuesday a comprehensive replacement for competing bills that would place restrictions on employer vaccine mandates, setting up a vote today on it by the full House members.

House Bill 435, dubbed the Ohio COVID-19 Vaccine Fairness Act, doesn’t deal with mask mandates at all. It says no employer, public or private, could require its employees to get any COVID-19 vaccine that has not received final federal approval. So far only the Pfizer vaccine has received that, and only for adults.

But even in those cases employees could claim exemption from vaccination for:

  • Medical conditions that prevent vaccination, attested by the person’s primary-care physician.
  • Natural immunity as demonstrated by having antibodies from previous a infection equal to that from vaccination, demonstrated through a test at the employee’s expense.
  • Reasons of conscience or religion, requiring a written assertion from the person.

The exemptions do not apply to people who work in children’s hospitals, in hospital intensive or critical care units, who work with infectious organisms, or anyone who starts a job after the bill goes into effect.

“We’re talking about applying these exemptions to existing employees, but not to new hires,” said state Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., one of the bill’s two primary sponsors.

If employers want to establish vaccine requirements for new hires, after the bill is in effect, it’s then the jobseeker’s choice as to whether to accept a position, he said.

The bill’s provisions would not supersede any vaccine requirements in collective bargaining agreements. Exemptions for students at public and private schools and universities are the same as for employees.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who have had COVID-19 still get vaccinated, saying it’s unknown how long natural immunity lasts. A recent study of hundreds of Kentucky residents who had COVID-19 recently found that unvaccinated people were more than twice as likely to be reinfected with the virus than the vaccinated.

“If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news release. “This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated. Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious Delta variant spreads around the country.”

The bill would also extend qualified civil immunity for individuals, schools, health care providers, businesses and other entities from lawsuits related to COVID-19 transmission through June 30, 2023. Currently that immunity from last year’s House Bill 606 expires Sept. 30, Carfagna said. It adds hearing aid dealers and fitters to the list of people receiving qualified immunity.

It also shields health care providers from liability in tort actions regarding the care and services they provide during this pandemic unless they were acting recklessly or displaying intentional misconduct.

Further, the bill states that public facilities can’t require the public to provide proof of vaccination to use those facilities, Carfagna said. It also lets EMTs give COVID-19 tests and collect test specimens.

The bill orders the Ohio Department of Health to adopt rules for testing people for COVID-19 antibodies to determine the respective levels provided by previous infection and vaccination.

“We certainly don’t know how long natural immunity lasts. We certainly don’t know how long a COVID vaccination lasts,” Carfagna said.

State Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, chairs the House Health Committee. He gaveled the committee to order at 3:10 p.m. Tuesday and introduced two new members: state Reps. Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, and Don Jones, R-Freeport — then immediately called for a 15-minute break for individual party caucuses.

Upon reconvening Lipps assured the watching crowd of about 40 that the committee had heard from thousands of people over the course of six hearings in six months, leading to this bill.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a day, and I know a lot of you have been waiting for us,” he said.

Lipps said the bill strives to protect Ohioans’ health, “but most importantly our individual rights and freedoms.”

Carfagna said one of the bill’s main features was to provide “clear, unambiguous” exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The bill specifies that it only applies to vaccines for COVID-19, not long-established childhood vaccinations for other diseases.

Its provisions would be in effect from final adoption until June 30, 2023.

State Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, said committee members only saw the bill’s final text five minutes before the committee hearing started.

“This is a very different bill than what we’ve been spending a lot of time debating over the course of several meetings in this committee,” she said.

Russo asked why other hospital employees and nursing home workers who deal with high-risk individuals, such as cancer patients, are not also removed from the exemption list.

Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati — the other primary sponsor — said health care businesses complain of “unbelievable” difficulties in retaining staff, so the bill’s authors didn’t want to make that worse. They asked the Ohio Hospital Association for carve-out language to cover workers with other high-risk patients but didn’t receive any, he said.

State Rep. Beth Liston, D-Dublin, asked whether the ban on proof of vaccination would apply to major entertainment venues. Seitz replied that most big sports facilities are publicly owned, so the bill’s prohibition would apply there. Collective-bargaining contracts for workers in the live-music industry should allow many concerts to require proof of vaccination, he said.

Lipps moved to report the bill favorably to the House Rules & Reference Committee, for referral to the full House. Russo objected, calling for testimony from interested groups and time to read the bill in detail.

“It’s just a very bad way to make public policy,” she said.

She, Liston and state Rep. Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, were the only no votes. The bill passed the Health Committee 11-3.

Seitz said the game plan was for the full House to vote on it Wednesday. It then would need to go to the Senate for a vote, and, if passed, to Gov. Mike DeWine for his approval — a process that could take 90 to 120 days before the bill goes into effect, he said.

This latest bill comes as the debate over COVID-19 vaccination and masking requirements have produced a flurry of bills from Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly, all seeking to prohibit some form of vaccination requirement and/or mask mandate.

The most sweeping of those proposals — House Bill 248, sponsored by state Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester Twp. — stalled as House Republican leadership seeks an overarching replacement for it and related bills.

Gross filed a discharge petition, seeking to force a vote on her bill in the full House. But it only got seven signatures of the required 50, Lipps said. Then on Sept. 20, House Republican leadership removed Gross from the Health Committee.

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