Bill to prevent COVID-19 vaccine mandates for Arizona schoolchildren gains momentum

Stephanie Innes
Arizona Republic
Health officials are not mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren, but some legislators want to block them from trying.

State health officials are not mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren, but a bill gaining momentum in the Arizona Legislature would prevent them from ever trying.

If passed, the bill would prohibit the Arizona Department of Health Services from  starting a process to include the COVID-19 vaccine on the state's list of immunizations required for K-12 schoolchildren. The state health department to date has not publicly signaled any intent to take that step.

The Arizona bill, sponsored by state Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, who is chair of the Legislature's House Health and Human Services Committee, has already made it through the full House of Representatives, passing with a 31-28 vote.

Osborne says the decision of whether or not to get a COVID-19 vaccine should be up to parents.

Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, looks on during debate of HB 2898, a K-12 education bill, during the House Appropriations Committee hearing at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on May 25, 2021.

Osborne's bill got another boost Wednesday when a Senate panel voted 5-3 to endorse it over the objection of the Arizona Public Health Association, which signed on in opposition to the bill along with the Arizona Academy of Family Physicians, the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

'We should trust the process'

While California and Louisiana plan on mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for children attending K-12 schools, the vaccine is optional for schoolkids in a vast majority of states.

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 remains under emergency use authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and has not yet received full approval. Existing Arizona law prevents the state from mandating schoolchildren to get any vaccine that's under emergency use authorization. Current law already prevents the state from mandating the HPV vaccine for school attendance.

Arizona is one of several states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, where elected leaders seeking to enact bans on COVID-19 vaccine requirements for schoolchildren. 

The process for adding a vaccine to the list of those required by state law is extensive and includes significant public input, Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association told the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee at Wednesday's hearing.

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The last time the health department added to its list of school-required vaccines was in 2008 when it added vaccines against chicken pox (varicella) and meningitis, said Humble, who is a former state health director and was an assistant state director at the time.

The process to add those vaccines took about 18 months and by law included a public comment period, he said.

"It's not a snap of the fingers kind of thing. There's this big process that you go through," Humble said. "I'm not here arguing that the COVID-19 vaccine should be added to the list. I'm here arguing that there's a tried-and-true process that has worked for a long time and that we should trust the process."

School-required vaccines in Arizona already allow for parental choice

University of Arizona graduate student Priscila Ruedas, who is studying public health, was one of three UA public health students who urged the committee to vote against Osborne's bill.

Legislators should trust public health professionals to ensure the wellbeing and safety of Arizona children, Ruedas said. That task should not be up to legislators, she said.

Three mothers spoke in favor of the Osborne's bill, saying it is needed to protect their children. One mother said she feared her son, who has multiple medical challenges and can't get the vaccine, could at some point be penalized for not getting it. Another mother said her son feels ostracized for not being vaccinated.

Committee member Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson noted that not only is the COVID-19 vaccine not yet mandated for Arizona schoolchildren, but that school-required vaccines already allow for parental choice, enabling them to get exemptions for medical reasons or "personal beliefs."

Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales

"Parents do have the right to choose and we do have some exceptions that they can take if they don't want their child vaccinated," Gonzales said. "This legislation would circumvent the process of getting vaccinations on a list and leave out even more of the public input on what gets on that list because this hearing is a small portion of what I heard the regular process would be."

In addition to Gonzales, Sens Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley, and Raquel Téran, D-Glendale, voted against Osborne's bill.

'This is not a childhood disease'

The vote split along party lines, with Republican Sens. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, committee vice chair Tyler Pace, R-Mesa and committee chair Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, voting no.

"It's the least we can do here as state legislators, to inject some sanity back into everyday school life, to say that it's optional not mandatory for students to have to take this shot," Rogers said.

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix

Barto praised Osborne's bill as "very, very important legislation at this point in time." Parents need to be able to have the ultimate right to guide their children's health, she said.

"Having this discussion and informing public health on how far they can go to overstep or to influence parents is what this is all about," she said. "Pinpointing that COVID-19 vaccination cannot be put on that list is important to many, many parents."

Osborne, the bill's sponsor, emphasized that she's not against vaccinations and said she recognizes the protective value of COVID-19 vaccine for older populations.

"This is not a childhood disease," Osborne said.

State data shows that the virus that causes COVID-19 is less deadly for children and young adults than it is for the general population. But children are nonetheless still affected, and they can also act as vectors of disease by spreading the virus to others.

Since the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed 63 young Arizonans under the age of 20, and 4,707 Arizonans in that age group have been hospitalized with COVID-19.

Some Arizona children have developed persistent post-COVID-19 symptoms known as Long COVID, including breathing problems and cardiac irregularities.

Another problem is a condition called MIS-C — multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. It's not clear what causes MIS-C, but many children with MIS-C previously were infected with the COVID-19 virus.

The CDC defines MIS-C as a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs. 

As of Nov. 30, 5,973 cases of MIS-C had been reported in the U.S, including 52 deaths. At least 150 cases have been reported in Arizona, according to the CDC. The median age of patients with MIS-C is 9, CDC data shows.

Reach the reporter at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes

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