During an April video conference of one of Ohio’s prominent anti-vaccine political groups, members expressed their worries about what the legislative response to a looming COVID-19 vaccine might look like.
However, they took solace in a powerful ally.
The chairman of the Ohio House Health committee, Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, told members he would be happy to fight for Health Freedom Ohio, but he’ll need backup.
“I need help with members of the health committee, because we’re going to face a couple huge bills that are gonna matter,” he said.
“We’re gonna face a couple bills that this group does not like. And I have to have energy to stop this vaccine shit that’s coming.”
A month prior, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Butler, second in the caucus ranks, joined on HFO’s monthly call.
He praised the members for their work advancing “medical freedom,” a term generally referring to abolishing or weakening requirements that students or employees receive vaccines for various diseases.
“There has been a lot of progress,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time, almost 10 years now. From when I started to now, there are a whole lot more legislators who believe in medical freedom. It’s thanks to groups like this one that that’s happening.”
Vaccines offer protections not just to the person who takes them, but to those around them. If enough people in a population are vaccinated, everyone — including people who are immunosuppressed from things like AIDS or chemotherapy and cannot take vaccines — faces lower risk of infection.
Senator Peggy Lehner has noticed the growth of anti-vaccine attitudes in the legislature, often under the term “medical freedom.”
The individualistic worldview of medicine, she said, is part of the reason the U.S. has failed to control COVID-19.
“Medical freedom may bring about the death of others,” she said. “I don’t know that that could be called freedom. It doesn’t strike me as a very pro-life position.”
If the Food and Drug Administration does authorize one or several COVID-19 vaccine candidates (purportedly as early as year’s end), the Ohio legislature could have some questions to answer: Who gets the vaccine first? How do they get it? Who pays for it? Who, if anyone, must get it?
Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings who specializes in vaccine law, says states could have a handful of these kinds of questions to answer. However, a more hostile legislature could stymie vaccine distribution efforts.
“The states could definitely step in to make it harder to get vaccinated,” she said.
Rank-and-file on up
While Lipps and Butler may be the two most powerful state lawmakers seeking to reduce vaccination requirements, a faction of mostly (but not entirely) Republican lawmakers stand behind them.
Senator Andrew Brenner in an April “video town hall” with the Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, another anti-vaccine group, took questions on ODH powers in the pandemic and vaccine policy alike.
“Nobody should be required to take a vaccine. If you’re over 18, you shouldn’t be required,” Brenner said. “Even if you’re a parent of kids, that should be up to the parents as to what they’re doing.”
Ohio has comparatively weak vaccination requirements. It’s one of 15 states that allows public school students to opt out of vaccines due to “reasons of conscience,” on top of religious or medical exemptions.
Efforts to further weaken vaccine requirements have come and gone.
In 2017, the House Economic Development, Commerce and Labor Committee passed House Bill 193, that would ban private employers from discriminating against employees who aren’t vaccinated against the flu.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Christina Hagan, who is now running for congress, claimed the “repercussions are not necessarily known” of the flu vaccine. She said employers requiring flu vaccines as a term of employment infringes on that employee’s personal freedoms.
Republican representatives Tom Brinkman, Anthony Devitis, Bill Dean, Dave Greenspan, Ron Hood, Dick Stein, and Lipps voted to support it. However, the bill was watered down and died before it made it to the House floor for a vote.
Democratic Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent and Hood introduced House Bill 268 in 2019, a broader vaccine employment bill. It prohibited private employers from discriminating against employees who decline any vaccinations (not just flu vaccines).
Five Republican representatives — Kris Jordan, Candice Keller. George Lang, Craig Riedel and Nino Vitale — signed on as cosponsors.
The late Rep. Don Manning, a Republican from the Youngstown area, introduced House Bill 132 in 2019, which would require school districts to tell parents how easy it is to opt out of immunizations.
Democratic Rep. Catherine Ingram signed on as a cosponsor, as did Republican representatives Riordan McClain, Butler, Hood, Lang, Lipps and Vitale.
Lipps joined the “vaccine battle” three years ago when hospitals started using vaccines as a condition of employment, he said in a brief interview.
He said his children and grandchildren are vaccinated, but he hears stories of vaccine injury and doesn’t believe people should be forced to take something that can hurt them.
“If you’re trying to morph this into the COVID vaccine which we all hear about, I would absolutely disagree that everybody should run out and be forced to take that vaccine,” he said.
In a separate interview, Butler said he believes vaccines to be generally safe and effective. However, he said people should have freedom to decide what they put in their body.
When asked what that means for the immunosuppressed schoolchildren who can’t be vaccinated, and who may find themselves in classes with people who choose against vaccination, he offered few details.
“I believe those specifics can be worked out so that somebody who’s vulnerable at school can get a full educational experience and that they’re able to fully participate,” he said.
Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday said he didn’t know whether he’d request legislative action if and when the FDA rolls out a vaccine.
“These are decisions that politicians shouldn’t make, bluntly,” he said. “This is a decision that we should leave to infectious disease experts and people who understand what is vitally important to save the most lives, and how do we, quick as we can, get control of this.”
Along with pushing anti-vaccine legislation, GOP Ohio lawmakers have unsuccessfully sought to thwart various limbs of the state response to COVID-19. That includes reeling in the powers of the health director, reducing penalties for violating public health orders, requiring written consent for contact tracing, and allowing local governments to opt out of state health orders.
What’s infuriating Dr. Amy Edwards, associate medical director for infection control at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, is she’s watching an infectious disease spiral out of control in real time.
Meanwhile, she said political actors are fighting against tools that can eradicate diseases that could also spin out of control.
“The movement in politics away from any kind of scientific basis or educated basis for the decisions that they make is very concerning to me,” Edwards said. “Part of the problem is people have forgotten what an unvaccinated population looks like and how bad it gets.”
Are vaccines safe?
Yes, in the sense that their “benefits clearly outweigh their risks,” according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Vaccines save lives by preventing disease. While vaccines, like any medicine, can produce side effects, serious injuries are extremely rare.
The federal government offers a quasi-court for people who say they were injured by a vaccine. If their claims are founded, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program awards them compensation, usually in a negotiated settlement.
For instance, between 2006 and 2018, more than 108 million Americans received the MMR vaccine, which immunizes against measles, mumps and rubella. About 260 people filed injury claims, less than 130 of which yielded any compensation.
More than 270 million Americans received a Tdap vaccine against tetanus and diptheria in the same time frame. About 450 people filed claims and received a settlement.
“You have more chance of being injured on the drive to the pediatrician’s office to get a vaccine or the drive home than anything in the vaccine itself,” said Tara Smith, a professor at the Kent State University college of public health.
“Roughly about 1 in a million doses of just about any vaccine have a potential to cause harm.”
A 2014 CDC report estimated vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years.
Edwards said the anti-vaccine movement cloaks its goals behind claims of “freedom.” That said, it takes ignoring reams of scientific evidence regarding the safety and efficacy of vaccines to support any anti-vaccine argument.
“[Vaccines] are one of the safest public health measures we have ever invented in public health history,” she said. “Their track record is unparalleled for safety.”