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Louisiana lawmakers reject addition of COVID vaccine to school immunizations list

Morgan, 7, put on a brave face for her covid-19 vaccination. She was nervous, but didn’t think it was too bad, Nov. 4, 2021.
Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom
Morgan, 7, put on a brave face for her covid-19 vaccination. She was nervous, but didn’t think it was too bad, Nov. 4, 2021.

Louisiana lawmakers voted against requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for K-12 students Monday after hours of misinformation about the virus took over the state health and welfare committee meeting.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to add the shot to the state’s school immunization schedule generated fierce opposition from mostly Republican lawmakers who said they had received hundreds of emails and phone calls from concerned parents.

Under the proposed amendment, families would still be able to decide not to vaccinate their children for COVID-19 by claiming medical, religious, personal or philosophical exemptions, officials said, adding that the objective isn’t to take away parent-choice, but rather send the message that the new vaccines are safe and effective.

“The intent is not to exclude unvaccinated children from school,” Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state’s health officer, told members of the state’s health and welfare committee.

Kanter said he feels “strongly” about parent-choice and believes families should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children.

While the committee voted 13-2 against adoption, Edwards still has the power to adopt the vaccine without its permission, and late last week he was still in favor.

“I just think it’s really, really important to embrace the science … and not engage in misinformation,” Edwards said at a press conference Friday. “Absent some compelling reason, which I at present have not seen, I fully expect that we will be adding the vaccine to the schedule.”

The rule would apply to students 16 years and older, starting with the 2022 school year and would be extended to younger children once the vaccine has full Food and Drug Administration approval for all age groups. The policy could eventually cover daycare through higher education.

Louisiana’s Attorney General Jeff Landry spoke at Monday’s meeting in opposition to the rule and cheered its rejection in a statement after the vote.

"I applaud the legislature, who voted in a bipartisan manner and in agreement with our legal advice that COVID-19 is not a ‘vaccine preventable disease’ and that the executive actions of [the Louisiana Department of Health] went beyond their statutory authority,” he said.

Landry has argued that the vaccine is not eligible for inclusion on the state’s vaccination schedule because the disease it protects against, COVID-19, is not vaccine preventable. But that isn’t true, and on Monday, medical officials once again discredited the argument.

“It is incorrect to infer vaccine-preventable disease as requiring complete and absolute protection,” Kanter said. “No vaccine is 100% effective 100% of the time.”

The term vaccine preventable refers to the ability of a vaccine to significantly “reduce the high amount of morbidity and mortality inflicted by a pathogen upon a population in the absence of widespread deployment of a vaccine,” Kanter said, adding that individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 are six times less likely to contract the disease and 14 times less likely to die from it.

Those not fully vaccinated accounted for 82% of cases and 71% of deaths from Nov. 18 to Nov. 24, according to the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). Eighty-three percent of current COVID hospitalizations are among people who are unvaccinated.

Expert testimony has done little to counter widespread claims that the vaccine causes greater harm than the virus itself. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well known anti-vaccine activist, advanced such claims at Monday’s meeting when he spoke at Landry’s request.

Kennedy, who was removed from Facebook for spreading anti-vaccine propaganda, claimed to be presenting data from reputable studies at Monday’s meeting that supported his claim that the COVID-19 vaccine is the “deadliest vaccine ever made.”

When asked about Kennedy’s testimony, Kanter said he had grossly misrepresented the data.

“In the middle of a pandemic, I find disinformation like that to be incredibly dangerous,” he said.

Louisiana continues to have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Less than 50% of all residents are fully vaccinated, and about 15% of children ages 5-17 have completed their vaccine series.

While some medical professionals who support the COVID-19 vaccine believe requiring it without a greater degree of public support could be a bad idea, others have argued the opposite.

“Apparently, for some, opposing a mandate of any kind trumps even the health and safety of one’s own children and grandchildren,” said Dr. Mark Kline, the chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, in a recent op-ed. “Allowing this point of view to dictate policy will come back to haunt us.

If Edwards moves forward with adoption he’ll likely face legal challenges from Landry who has argued the governor can’t require the vaccine without support from the full legislature. Landry has already mounted legal challenges to other vaccine requirements.

Voting to oppose adoption were representatives Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Roy Daryl Adams, No Party-Jackson; Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City; Michael Echols, R-Monroe; Julie Emerson, R-Carenco; C. Travis Johnson, D-Vidalia; Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria; Wayne McMahen, R-Minden; Bob Owen, R-Slidell; Thomas Pressley, R-Shreveport; Joe Stagni, R-Kenner; Christopher Turner, R-Ruston.

Voting to support adoption were representatives Robby Carter, D-Amite and Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas.

This story has been updated to correct vaccine data for children ages 5-17.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.