Analysis: Edwards stays with vaccine plan despite opposition

By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — An outpouring of legislative opposition and a likely threat of litigation aren’t changing Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mind about requiring some Louisiana students to get the COVID-19 vaccine during the next school year or file a written opt-out form.

The Democratic governor is facing increasing pushback to his response to the coronavirus outbreak — particularly on issues involving children — as the pandemic nears its two-year mark. Most of the objections and criticism are coming from Republicans, but the student immunization plan also has drawn opposition from some lawmakers within Edwards’ own party.

Edwards intends to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the state’s immunization schedule for K-12 schools and colleges for the 2022-23 school year — with broad exemptions for parents and students to opt out by submitting a written objection. Already, many of Louisiana’s colleges have begun requiring the vaccine or an exemption filing.

The House Health and Welfare Committee opposed Edwards’ plan in a 13-2 bipartisan vote and on Thursday sent its written objection to the governor and the Louisiana Department of Health.

The committee “determined that the proposed rule is not advisable, is unacceptable and is outside the scope of authority granted to LDH by the constitution and laws of this state,” the letter says.

Edwards had 10 days from receipt of the letter to overrule that objection and declare he’s enacting the vaccination plan anyway. He’s expected to announce that decision this week.

Exactly when the lawsuit challenging the governor’s immunization plan will be filed appears to be the only remaining question.

Attorney General Jeff Landry and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans, are among the officials who said they don’t believe the Edwards administration has the authority to add the coronavirus vaccine to the immunization schedule.

Landry, who is eyeing a run for governor in 2023 and appeared at the House committee hearing with an anti-vaccine activist, has made legal feuds with the Democratic governor a hallmark of his tenure in office and has successfully challenged some of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.

Under Edwards’ plan, the addition of the COVID-19 vaccine to the state immunization schedule will only apply to age groups for whom the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given full approval for the shots. Currently, that’s students 16 and older. But that would broaden to cover younger children if the FDA grants full backing to the vaccine for more age groups.

The governor blames misinformation as the primary reason his plan faces so much resistance, telling an event audience Thursday: “There are too many people seemingly on purpose trying to undermine confidence in the vaccine.”

Misinformation about the shots and COVID-19 were widespread at last week’s day-long House committee hearing, where some elected officials and members of the public downplayed the risks of the coronavirus illness, while inflating the risks of the vaccine.

But while many were spouting widespread inaccuracies, others had a more basic argument, calling the governor’s plan governmental overreach that meddles in family decision-making. They noted that local school boards, the state education department and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education weren’t involved in crafting the regulation — or supporting it in committee.

Republican lawmakers said they have been inundated with calls and emails from angry parents, and they described concerns for their own children.

“As it relates to children, we just don’t have enough information,” said Sen. Patrick McMath, a Covington Republican who is the father of four youngsters.

Rep. Chris Turner, a Ruston Republican, agreed: “I feel like it’s being rushed.”

U.S. health authorities and leading doctors’ groups urge vaccination. Even though the virus tends to be more severe in adults than children, COVID-19 is causing plenty of preventable suffering among youngsters.

Edwards’ chief public health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, stressed that the federal government didn’t skip steps in vetting and approving the vaccines for use, and he’s expressed frustration that people suggest COVID-19 isn’t a significant threat to children.

He said 18 children in Louisiana have died from COVID-19 since March 2020 — compared to 10 children who have died of the flu over the last six years — and more than 275 children have developed a serious COVID-19 complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome. He also noted that children can transmit the infection to vulnerable family members.

“This virus does affect children in profound ways, and it’s really scary I think when people minimize that,” Kanter said.

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