Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s “Vax-a-Million” program began Wednesday, running the first of five $1-million weekly lottery drawings open to residents who have been vaccinated. The effort is one of many incentive programs across the country aimed at getting vaccine-hesitant groups to roll up their sleeves, get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus, and help end the pandemic.
But, while the lottery has already been hailed as a success in boosting vaccination numbers, conservative lawmakers in the Buckeye State appear to be diligently working toward reversing that trend.
Lawmakers are working on legislation to call off the lottery immediately. They’re also trying to head off any plans for “vaccine passports.” And last month, they introduced a sweeping antivaccination bill that would essentially demolish public health and vaccination requirements in the state—and not just requirements for COVID-19 vaccines, requirements for any vaccine.
House Bill 248, introduced last month by Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester), would allow anyone to decline any vaccine with a simple verbal declaration based on “reasons of conscience.”
The bill would let people off the hook for vaccine requirements set by virtually any entity. The bill lists them, naming: individuals, businesses (like day cares), corporations, trusts, business trusts, estates, associations, partnerships, cities, counties, townships, municipal corporations, school districts, health districts, a city’s health board, any public official, public offices, or any state agency (defined as any institution or organization that receives any support from the state.)
If any of the above entities even tries to institute a vaccine requirement, it would be required under HB 248 to notify people that they are able to decline. The entities are not allowed to disclose who has declined. And they “shall not discriminate against, deny service or access to, segregate, require a facial covering or other vaccination status label for, or otherwise penalize an individual financially or socially for declining a vaccination.”
HB 248 also notes that the act should be referred to as the “Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act.”
Public health in peril
K-12 schools in Ohio have allowed for vaccine requirement exemptions based on “reasons of conscience,” but they have required written statements—not just verbal declarations.
That would change under HB 248. Also, universities and day cares could no longer require vaccinations for students, which prevent outbreaks of deadly diseases and protect children and adolescents who are medically unable to be vaccinated or are immunocompromised from being exposed to deadly diseases. Employers, including hospitals and health care facilities, would not be able to require vaccinations for their workers. This could potentially make workplaces unsafe from preventable infectious disease outbreaks and place any medically vulnerable person at high risk. And businesses would not be able ask unvaccinated employees, customers, or clients to wear masks or take other measures to prevent the spread of disease—even if there were high-risk individuals present, like cancer survivors and people who have compromised immune systems.
This is, by all accounts, a step backward in efforts to protect public health.
State Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin) blasted the bill, telling The Columbus Dispatch, “Not only would it prevent schools, businesses and communities from putting safety measures in pace related to COVID, it will impact the health of our children… This bill applies to all vaccines—polio, measles, meningitis, etc. If it becomes law we will see worsening measles outbreaks, meningitis in the dorms, and children once again suffering from polio.”
The Dispatch reported that 50 business associations, health care groups, and hospitals sent a letter to the House Health Committee this week, also objecting to the bill.
“At its core, this proposal would destroy our current public health framework that prevents outbreaks of potentially lethal diseases, threatens the stability of our economy as it recovers from a devastating pandemic and jeopardizes the way we live, learn, work and celebrate life,” the letter said.
The Ohio Association of Health Plans, which represents health insurers in the state, issued a similar statement Tuesday, according to the Ohio Capital Journal.
“HB 248 would put all Ohioans at risk while increasing the cost of health care for families, individuals and businesses,” spokesperson Dan Williamson said. “This proposal applies to all immunizations, including childhood vaccines. If passed, this legislation could reverse decades of immunity from life-threatening, but vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, mumps, hepatitis, meningitis and tuberculosis.”