The House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions killed two bills Tuesday morning that would have allowed Virginians to opt out of a potential COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The bills, HB 5016 and HB 5070, gave individuals and parents the option to object on religious ground to a vaccine mandate by the Health Commissioner, who has authority to institute immediate immunization during a public health crisis, such as COVID-19, under Virginia law.
HB 5016, sponsored by Del. Mark Cole (R-Stafford County) was the first bill killed during the committee meeting with the motion passing by a vote of 11-Y 10-N.
“I am disappointed but not surprised by the action of the Democrats on the committee,” Cole said in an email to The Virginia Star. “It just means the matter may end up being litigated should the Department of Health try to impose a mandate. I am confident that the courts would strike down any such mandate but litigating it could cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars.”
Del. Wendell Walker (R-Lynchburg), co-sponsor on both bills and member of the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, said that he was disappointed by the decision of the committee and expressed concerns over people’s right to choose, among other points.
“My support on this basically is stopping any type of blank authority that the [health] commissioner may feel that he has to mandate [vaccines] because this is nothing more than the freedom of liberty and this is tyranny that is stepping over individual’s rights to choose,” Walker said in an interview with The Star.
HB 5070, sponsored by Del. David LaRock (R-Frederick County), was the next bill discussed in the nearly four-hour meeting.
As members of the committee were casting their votes after a brief discussion on the bill, LaRock aired his grievances with the procedures to his colleagues.
“I look forward to sometime in the future this bill being given a full and fair hearing where the public is allowed to have input and I am allowed to address comments by members of the committee which were, I think, misleading and in error,” said LaRock, according to the recorded live stream of the meeting.
HB 5070 was laid on the table by a vote of 13-Y 8-N, straight down the party lines of the committee.
“Immunization bills stir the passions of many people,” Committee chair Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax County) said in an interview with The Star. “I think that the overwhelming science of [those type of bills] is favorable to public health, and I don’t really buy some of the arguments from the people that believe that these immunizations are harmful to society.
“I really do support any drug, vaccines included, going through the full FDA process with double-blind tests and [giving] placebos to people, everything.”
Sickles also voiced his own concerns about the rapid production of a vaccine used for mass immunizations and said that Virginians do not have to worry about a potential COVID-19 vaccine mandate at this point.
The decision to kill the bills comes after Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said on Friday that he would mandate a COVID-19 vaccine whenever one was available to the public.
As stories about the health commissioner’s comments were being published by media outlets, spokespeople for the Virginia Department of Health told The Star that Dr. Oliver’s support for a mandated COVID-19 vaccine was his own personal opinion as a physician and that Governor Northam had not taken an official policy position on the matter.
Today, Gov. Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, confirmed to The Star that Northam is not planning on a mandate for a COVID-19 vaccine despite Dr. Oliver’s support of the idea.
“I will note that we are focused on accessibility, affordability, and fair distribution of a vaccine,” Yarmosky said. “When a vaccine becomes available, we’re confident that Virginians will seek it out—that’s why we don’t have plans for a mandate.”
Because the future prevalence and severity of COVID-19 is unknown, religious exemptions for a potential vaccine mandate remains an issue for conservative lawmakers and their constituents.
“My job as a Delegate is to represent the individual rights and help protect individuals from bad legislation and bad government policy and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Walker said.
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