By William Patrick | The Center Square
(The Center Square) – The Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee has rejected a Louisiana Department of Health rule that would have added approved COVID-19 vaccines to the list of required immunizations for children to attend K-12 schools.
The committee’s bipartisan 13-2 vote sets up a potential showdown with Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has said he will override the Louisiana Legislature if necessary.
Monday’s hearing coincided with a regulatory rule process that began in September and managed to avoid any previous public hearing or public comments during the required comment period. Critics have alleged the proposed rule has been designed to avoid backlash.
Monday’s marathon meeting was an opportunity for state lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature to express concerns as well as confront State Health Officer Joseph Kanter, who appeared with the Department of Health’s top lawyer and a department epidemiologist.
Nearly two dozen legislators testified before the committee, along with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; Attorney General Jeff Landry; vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr.; and an estimated 200 parents and state residents who submitted public comment requests – the vast majority of whom spoke in opposition to the school vaccine mandate.
Schexnayder opened the eight-hour hearing by saying the proposal was “a line in the sand.”
“I am not an anti-vaccine person,” he said. “I never imagined that before COVID I would have to come and take a stand against the administration on mandating a shot for school-age students against the will of their parents.”
Landry asserted the Edwards administration effort, which would have the force of law, violates the Health Department’s legislatively-delegated authority.
Landry said the department only can require vaccines that “prevent” disease and COVID-19 vaccinations do not stop fully vaccinated individuals from getting infected or transmitting the virus.
“I’m asking you to take back the police powers of this state,” Landry said. “We cannot allow the executive branch to bypass the constitutional responsibilities of this Legislature by allowing them to create policy in law using executive fiat. That is absolutely the job you are charged with doing.”
Robert Kennedy Jr., chairman of the Children’s Health Defense nonprofit and son of late U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, gave a presentation warning of adverse COVID-19 vaccination effects.
Kennedy accused vaccine-maker Pfizer of skewing data during shortened clinical trials and said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rushed to approve an “experimental product.” Kanter later called the presentation “gross misinformation.”
Kanter thanked the Health Department’s roughly 7,000 employees and affiliated health officials during his opening statement and objected to calling the proposed vaccine rule a “mandate.”
Citing broad opt-out provisions, Kanter said, “This rule change is a priority for the Department of Health because we believe the loss of life endured throughout the 21 months of this pandemic, and particularly the loss of young life, has simply been untenable.”
“Vaccines are our single greatest tool to fight back against COVID-19’s profound toll,” he said.
The rule would apply to 16- and 17-year-olds but would extend to students as young as age 5 pending FDA approval. Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, said the way the rule is written, the Legislature would not have an opportunity to weigh-in at that time.
Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Metairie, said that as former pharmaceutical company employee, she was “far from an anti-vaxxer,” but the issue centered on “parental rights.”
Rep. Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales, said Louisiana would join California as the only states mandating COVID-19 vaccines for K-12 in-person learning if the rule was finalized.
“I have had numerous conversations, phone calls, social media responses, emails and a survey in my district. I have not had one person tell me that the COVID shot should be added to the schedule,” Edmonston said.
Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, thanked Kanter and the Health Department officials in attendance for their “courage and compassion” during the pandemic.
Miller asked Stephen Russo, the department’s top lawyer, whether Edwards and Kanter could have simply exercised their public health emergency powers to require COVID-19 vaccines in schools instead of implementing it through the Administrative Procedures Act.
“Yes, sir, I believe we could have,” Russo said.
Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, asked how many children had died since the pandemic. A department epidemiologist said 125,000 children had tested positive and 18 had died, of which 14 had comorbidities.