Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed legislation Wednesday that could block schools from mandating vaccination against COVID-19 for the fall.
In the dying moments of the final legislative session before a summer recess, lawmakers tacked the vaccine provision as an amendment onto an unrelated bill regarding educational opportunities for military children. The amendment:
- Forbids public K-12 schools and colleges from requiring any vaccine that has not yet received “full approval” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- Forbids the schools from “discriminating” against anyone who has not been vaccinated, which includes infection control provisions like masks and social distancing.
- Does not apply to hospitals or health care facilities operated by or affiliated with universities.
It passed on party lines in both chambers, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.
All three vaccines available for use against COVID-19 are approved under an “emergency use authorization.” The FDA uses this streamlined regulatory process for drugs and vaccines that can be used against an ongoing emergency such as the pandemic, which has killed more than 608,000 Americans to date. The regulators issued the temporary authorization after reviewing clinical trial data on tens of thousands of recipients. The FDA, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), continues to monitor safety and efficacy profiles of all three vaccines.
DeWine announced his approval of the bill without any public comment or fanfare. His signature on the bill seems to violate his pledge to veto any legislation that would “discourage vaccination.”
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the governor, played up the bill’s original aims in an email and said DeWine expects looming regulatory approval to nix the issue.
“The primary purpose of the bill was to enhance educational opportunities for children in military families — a worthy goal,” he said. “The provision you are referring to is limited to vaccines that do not have full FDA approval. We are confident that these vaccines, proven repeatedly to be very safe and very effective, will be approved by the FDA, thus rendering this issue moot.”
Passage comes amid an ongoing clash between DeWine and fellow Republicans in the legislature regarding public health policy. Earlier this year, lawmakers overrode DeWine’s veto on a broad weakening of state public health laws.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the House Health Committee are considering legislation that would weaken state vaccination laws and prevent employers, nursing homes, hospitals, colleges and more from requiring vaccination of students and employees. DeWine has said he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.
During a hearing on that bill, lawmakers — many of whom have announced their refusal to seek vaccination against COVID-19 and aligned themselves with anti-vaccination activists — invited testimony from a discredited doctor who has claimed vaccines are a “depopulation” and “mass destruction” tool.
DeWine’s signature furthers an emerging anti-vaccination push from Republican-controlled state legislatures. For instance, the Tennessee Department of Health halted all adolescent vaccine outreach and forced out its top vaccine official this month under pressure from Republican lawmakers, according to recent reporting from The Tennessean. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed legislation to ban “vaccine passports,” which do not exist in most areas of the country but would theoretically be used by institutions to validate people’s vaccination status.
Under the new Ohio law signed by DeWine on Wednesday, schools can still technically require immunization against COVID-19 once the federal regulators issue a full-blown authorization. However, Ohio is one of about a dozen states that allows exemptions to school immunization requirements for “reasons of conscience” — something of a catchall term.
The new law’s sponsors, state Reps. Andrea White, R-Kettering, and Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek, issued a lengthy statement regarding the help the bill will deliver for military children. They briefly addressed the vaccination issue.
“By prohibiting our educational institutions from requiring vaccines that are not fully approved by the FDA, we are ensuring that safety is at the forefront of our priorities,” they said.
The sponsors did not answer whether this means they consider the vaccines to be unsafe.
Two Democrats on the House Health Committee issued a statement Wednesday evening criticizing the new law, saying it puts “political self-interests” ahead of good health policy.
“With the arrival of the delta variant, this country is still in the midst of a dangerous pandemic and unvaccinated individuals are at highest risk,” said Rep. Allison Russo, D-Columbus.
“Public schools and universities deserve to have the flexibility to either require COVID-19 vaccines or establish mitigation procedures they deem appropriate for the circumstances in their communities. Instead, this bill further undermines trust in science and a vaccine that has saved the lives of thousands of Ohioans.”