ADPH says no vaccine mandate coming; senator says exemptions needed in case

An Alabama state senator is working on legislation that would set up exemptions to any possible vaccination mandates issued by the state health officer.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he does not expect a COVID-19 vaccine mandate from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris but said he wants to start consideration of exemptions for any possible future mandates.

Ryan Easterling, director of Health Media and Communications for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said in an email there are no plans for a mandate.

“The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) has not considered any mandates for this vaccine and, accordingly, has not researched this,” Easterling said. “ADPH does not believe there to be legal authority for the State Health Officer to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations.”

Orr said he received calls from people in his district concerned that there could be a mandate. He asked the Legislative Services Agency, which researches topics for lawmakers, to determine whether the health officer had that authority.

“What is the scope of the state health officer’s authority?” Orr asked. “Does he or she have the authority to mandate individuals to take a vaccine?”

Orr said the answer he received was that, yes, the health officer has that authority, although it’s probably subject to a challenge in court.

“But as you know, unless a judge or someone issues an injunction, the court system is not built for quick decision making,” Orr said. “So, it could conceivably be a situation where you have one person authorized to mandate vaccinations across the state without any scrutiny or any ability to stop it.”

Orr said he asked the Legislative Services Agency to research the topic of exemptions, including those in other states, such as for religious reasons or health reasons. Examples of people who might qualify for a health exemption would be pregnant women, or people whose doctors advise them not to take a vaccine, he said.

Alabama requires public school students to have certificates showing they have received vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, and other diseases. The state allows medical exemptions certified by a physician and religious exemptions issued by county health departments.

Orr said he does not intend for his legislation to affect school vaccination policies. The senator said he expects the bill to begin conversation on the scope and limitations on vaccine mandates for adults.

“I’m interested to see what input my legislative colleagues would have,” Orr said. “This is kind of a starting point, and through the legislative process bills change and this would certainly be one of first impression. But fundamentally, I believe we need to have the discussion and debate as to where we want to draw the line on the government’s authority to mandate vaccinations.

“We need to use this experience to prepare for the future in the event we have a future pandemic as well. So we’re not setting precedent just for COVID. It’s for potentially the future pandemics that may hit our country.”

Alabama could receive its first doses of the Pfizer vaccine by mid-December, although quantities will be limited. Health care workers caring for patients with COVID-19 and residents and staff in nursing homes will be among the first to received vaccinations under the state’s distribution plan. Vaccines are expected to become widely available next year.

Related: Alabama’s COVID vaccine may be widely available by June

Harris has said he understands people are concerned about the safety of vaccines and that an important part of the state’s vaccine distribution plan will be to answer questions and educate the public.

Gov. Kay Ivey was asked today about the possibility of a vaccine mandate when she spoke to reporters about the pandemic after an event at the Alabama National Guard headquarters. She noted that the vaccine will be free and encouraged people to make plans to receive it when they can.

“There will be no mandate to take it,” Ivey said. “But it will cost no one out-of-pocket money. It’s provided by President Trump and the federal government. So I urge everybody to step up to the plate and get vaccinated. I’ll sure do it.”

Orr said he’s not planning to take one of the first COVID-19 vaccines, partly because he said he’s not in a high-risk category, and partly because he is concerned that there hasn’t been time to evaluate the long-range effects. Orr said he’s not opposed to vaccines in general and has received many, especially when he was a member of the Peace Corps.

“I can only speak for myself,” Orr said. “And if you were a diabetic or elderly or whatever in a risk category then you would probably be well advised to take it. But that’s between an individual and their doctor.”

The legislative session starts Feb. 2.

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