What would Ohio bill outlawing employer vaccine mandates mean? What both sides are saying.

Ohio lawmakers heard several hours of testimony on Tuesday for and against a bill that would ban employers from mandating all vaccines, including for COVID-19, all while Ohio reported more than 4,000 new daily coronavirus cases.

The controversial bill drew a crowd of hundreds of supporters who demonstrated outside and packed inside the atrium and halls of the Statehouse.

House Bill 248, the Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act introduced by state Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, would prevent any employer, including health care providers, schools and other institutions, from requiring or requesting an individual get any vaccines.

If passed, the legislation would also prohibit entities including employers, public agencies and schools from requiring immunization records. There is an exemption in the bill for schools and child care centers, but the bill language would require them when notifying parents about required immunizations to also notify parents about available exemptions.

The Ohio House Health Committee reconvened early on Tuesday and heard dozens of witnesses give over four hours of testimony. No amendments or votes occurred Tuesday as requested by Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima.

Cosponsors of HB 248 include state Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria; Nino Vitale, R-Urbana; and Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason.

Proponents of the bill said Tuesday that coronavirus vaccines are still experimental and argued that employers are not offering enough exemptions for employees who don’t want to be vaccinated. Frequent cheers could be heard in the halls, often in response to Republican lawmakers and witnesses denouncing the vaccine.

The widespread consensus among health officials is that coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective, and our best way out of the pandemic. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for ages 16 and older.

About 51% of Ohioans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Ohio’s health care and business leaders largely oppose HB 248. The Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce opposes the legislation.

“We strongly believe that employers in the Dayton region, Ohio and across our country should have the freedom to operate their businesses, to make decisions about their workforce and to develop the health and safety policies that meet the needs of their individual workplaces and industries without government interference,” said Chris Kershner, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Doctors and public health officials from across the state testified that this legislation would decimate public health efforts in Ohio now and in the future.

Sarah Kincaid, vice president of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association, testified in opposition of the bill.

“House Bill 248 is a misguided proposal that would have devastating effects on the health of our state,” Kincaid said. “While touted as an effort to prevent the COVID-19 vaccine from being mandated by the government or other entities, this legislation makes no specific reference to the coronavirus and includes all immunizations. We strongly feel this legislation is a misguided effort, falsely claiming to provide freedoms to Ohioans that already exist under state law, while compromising children’s health and infringing upon employer rights.”

Dayton-area hospital systems Dayton Children’s, Premier Health and Kettering Health Network are all requiring their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dr. Emily R. Miller, a Cincinnati Children’s doctor who specializes in treating sick newborns, was the first to testify against the bill Tuesday. She said banning vaccine mandates would exacerbate the pandemic at a time when the dual threats of rising childhood RSV infections and COVID-19 cases threaten pediatric hospital capacity.

“My oldest son is sick with RSV and needs to be hospitalized for breathing support and IV fluids,” she said. “As health care workers, we are exhausted … Consider how HB 248 will make our situation even worse.”

Scott Shoemaker, who did not say where he is from, testified in support of the bill.

What we are seeing now can be described as medical racism,” Shoemaker said. “When we are harassed and bullied by our own government for the medical decisions that we make, our personal freedoms are violated, and we no longer have bodily autonomy, what do we have left?”

Brian K. Latham of Springfield testified in support of the bill, saying he is pro-vaccine but he believes the coronavirus vaccine is still experimental.

“I’m not against vaccines,” he said. “However I am against the vaccine being mandated or forced on the American people.”

He claimed thousands of recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine have died since receiving the shot and those deaths have been reported to the federal government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

Later in the hearing, Dr. Michael Brady, an infectious disease specialist in Columbus, explained that only a handful of deaths have been linked to the vaccine after being investigated by health officials and that severe reactions to the vaccine are extremely rare.

When asked what’s next, Gross said, the people want a vote on this bill or a similar bill soon.

“My understanding is we’re going to go back, we’re going to look at amendments, we’re going to look at what the business community is willing to do ... but there are other pieces of legislation that are out there,” she said. “We need to decide where our legislature is willing to go, where is the speaker willing to go, where’s the senate president and Senate is willing to go.”

There are several other bills introduced in the Ohio General Assembly that would ban coronavirus vaccine mandates or vaccine passports in some fashion.

“My hope is that the people don’t get nothing because I really believe that we are in a position where we are going to have a health care crisis if we do not do something because I’ve been to the demonstrations with health care workers, and they’re serious,” Gross said.

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