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Conservative Texas lawmakers are taking another shot at prohibiting private businesses from requiring employees to get COVID-19 vaccines.
The new legislation comes after years of Republican attempts to reign in COVID-related restrictions like mask mandates and vaccine requirements.
Senate Bill 7, by Galveston Republican Sen. Mayes Middleton, offers no exceptions to its proposed ban on vaccine mandates by private businesses and would subject employers to state fines and other actions if they fire or punish employees who refuse the shot. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee quickly passed the bill Tuesday, the second day of a special legislative session.
“It’s about protecting individual liberties and medical freedom for all Texans,” Middleton told the committee. “No one should be forced to make that awful decision between making a living for their family and their health or individual vaccine preference.”
The bill passed the committee along party lines, with six Republicans voting for it and three Democrats opposing it. The legislation could reach the Senate floor for debate as early as Thursday, which could feature proposed amendments creating exemptions for health care facilities.
In late 2021, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning the mandates, but it touched off confusion over who was covered by the order and how enforceable it was. That order expired in June, triggering a legislative attempt to codify it during the regular session earlier this year. After that attempt failed, Abbott added the issue to the agenda for this year’s third special legislative session.
A new state law banning governmental entities from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine went into effect last month.
The current lack of exceptions for doctors’ offices, clinics or other health facilities triggered objections by two members of the committee who have had kidney transplants — Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston — as well as some skepticism by the Republican committee chair, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.
Miles and Hancock both argued that immunocompromised people like them deserve to have low-risk environments to go for treatment. They asked Middleton to consider adding exceptions for some of those places or circumstances.
“I want to point out that we can’t just broadly cover this in a political way,” Hancock said. “It needs to be surgically addressed, no pun intended, and we do all need to be aware that as we provide freedom for some individuals, we’re taking away from others.”
Miles, who takes eight antibiotics every day to prevent infection that would affect his donated kidney, said removing the ability of certain health care professionals to protect vulnerable patients could hamper access.
“It means a lot to me and to the millions of kidney patients across this [state],” Miles said. “I know it means a lot to them, to our elderly. It would mean a heck of a whole lot to them. With all due respect to you, brother Middleton, this ain’t about Texas, and this is not about Republican and Democrat. It ain't about blue or red. It’s about the safety of health care. I hope that I can convince you somewhere down the line.”
Some Republican members of the committee who expressed support for the bill asked opponents if they would accept legislation that allowed businesses to be exempt from the ban as long as they could not punish employees who claim medical, religious or conscience-driven objections to getting the vaccine.
Kolkhorst said the debate comes down to a mistrust of science stemming from a lack of what she and some others believe is reliable data on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Legislation she and Middleton carried during the regular session earlier this year included exemptions for private employers that allow employees to opt out for medical or conscience reasons.
It also would have exempted health care facilities from the ban on vaccine mandates as long as they didn’t force employees to take it if their doctors determined they were medically not a good candidate.
In both cases, the business or facility also would have been required to have procedures for unvaccinated staff to protect other employees from exposure.
That bill passed the Senate but died near the end of the regular session in May without a hearing in a House committee. A similar effort died in 2021 after business groups rallied against it.
“I think it’s a great conversation for us to have, but I do think that we have to be very careful how we craft this going forward and working with our members in this committee and their concerns," Kolkhorst said about SB 7. "I want to be sensitive to the members on this committee that, as Sen. Miles says, with his health, he walks a different path than you and I do every day.”
At Tuesday’s hearing in the Texas Senate chamber, anti-vaccine activists who support the bill faced off at the witness table with the Texas Medical Association, as well as hospitals and nursing homes, who asked to be left off the bill or given some type of exemption.
“Physicians and health care facilities need to have flexibility to act in the best interests of our patients and our staff,” said Dr. Jimmy Widmer, a family physician and past leader of TEXPAC, the political arm of the Texas Medical Association. “A doctor’s office in Texas should have the freedom to set their own vaccination in alignment with the needs of the patients we serve.”
But if anyone should be subject to a ban on vaccine mandates, bill supporters said, it’s the health care industry that has played such a pivotal role in the country’s response to the pandemic.
“These are the worst perpetrators of the abuses on employees. This is not about health, it’s about control,” said Dawn Richardson, director of advocacy for the National Vaccine Information Center. “The willing destruction of the livelihood and health of their employees [with the vaccine mandate] demonstrates exactly why these businesses should be held to the same standards as every other business.”
Disclosure: Texas Medical Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.