The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
Several Republicans in the Ohio Senate indicated reluctance to legislation prohibiting universities, employers, and most health care facilities from requiring vaccination against COVID-19.
All but one Republican in the chamber passed House Bill 218 last month, overriding objections from business, health care, and public health organizations. During Senate committee reviews and interviews Tuesday, however, some Republicans said they didn’t want to pass a law blocking private businesses or schools from passing vaccine mandates if the employers deem it appropriate.
“I think businesses should make the decisions on this,” said Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London.
Hackett and two other Senators who made similar comments have aligned on the issue with both Gov. Mike DeWine and powerful large-business lobby groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Ohio Business Roundtable. They said they oppose the federal government’s vaccine mandates for health care providers and large employers from President Joe Biden, and they oppose any state legislation that prohibits employers from making mandate decisions for themselves.
The Senate consideration comes as Ohio, the 9th least vaccinated state in the nation according to The New York Times, experiences its third major case surge of COVID-19 and a respiratory virus-friendly winter looms. More than 4,200 Ohioans are currently in the hospital with COVID-19, the heaviest patient load since January 6, 2021, per data from the Ohio Hospital Association.
House Republicans spent about six months on a more expansive version of the legislation. After Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said in mid-October the House would hit "pause" on the issue, lawmakers abruptly passed the vaccine mandate ban on Nov. 30, mere hours after they publicly released its latest draft.
Along with the mandate ban, the legislation also extends a broad immunity for people and businesses against lawsuits alleging they negligently spread COVID-19. This would require people bringing coronavirus lawsuits to prove the alleged conduct was "reckless ... willful ... wanton or intentional" instead of simply negligent — all of which warrant a tougher legal standard.
In the House, lead sponsor Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, said the bill was about personal autonomy and making sure the health care system doesn’t face an exodus of nurses. In the Senate, however, he framed it as an economic issue.
“I want to make sure that it’s very clear that this bill is a very common-sense approach of dealing with our workforce shortage and our supply chain issues,” he said.
Senate Republicans skeptical
Generally, the legislation requires schools and employers to accept a broad list of exemptions including a “reasons of conscience” claim. Only intensive care units and children’s hospitals can go any stricter. But why not include cancer wards, which care for the 72,000 Ohioans who are diagnosed with cancer per year and may not receive full protection from a vaccine, asked Leo Almeida, a lobbyist with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
The Hope Lodge in Cleveland — which Almeida said provided nearly 21,000 nights of free lodging in 2019 to more than 8,000 cancer patients or their families — wouldn’t be able to impose any mandate to protect patients either.
In an interview after the hearing, Senate General Government Budget Committee Chairman Bob Peterson, R-Washington Court House, declined to offer his explicit stance on the bill but said he tends to favor employer’s rights.
“I think in general, I lean toward businesses being able to make decisions on their employers on how to operate their businesses,” he said.
Hackett has been the only committee member to make the health care argument — vaccines prevent infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
“It’s almost like, are you being consistent with what makes the most sense when you look at the data?” he asked Cutrona.
CDC research has found the vaccines are as much as 93% effective in preventing hospitalization due to COVID-19. Fully vaccinated people are about five times less likely to get infected in the first place and 10 times less likely to die from an infection. Data from the Ohio Department of Health shows since January, about 5% of the people hospitalized or dead from COVID-19 were fully vaccinated.
Sen. George Lang, R-West Chester Twp., didn’t specifically answer in an interview whether he believes an employer should be able to require their employees get vaccinated but said he believes in “free markets and free peoples.”
In February, Lang publicly announced that he wouldn’t get vaccinated. On Tuesday, he said he declined on the advice of his oncologist. His wife, he said, declined vaccination because “she just doesn’t trust the government.” He said the two of them walked away from a “considerable” deposit on international travel to a country that would only admit them if they got vaccinated. Regardless, he cast doubt on any idea that the bill would help workforce development.
“I just don’t see the correlation,” Lang said.
Michelle Cotterman, then president of anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Ohio, protested outside then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton's home in the spring. Photo by Katie Forbes.
The Chamber of Commerce, which represents large scale employers, and the Ohio Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs, argued the vaccine mandate decision should be left with employers.
Pat Tiberi, a former Ohio Congressman who now runs the Ohio Business Roundtable, said most the businesses he represents fund their own employee health insurance program. Because they eat the risk of hospital or intensive care treatments ($100,000 on average, he said), employers should have the right to require employees take a vaccine that’s demonstrably safe and effective at preventing severe COVID-19.
Dale Laws, a Whirlpool manufacturing executive and chairman of the Ohio Manufacturers Association, said that neither federal nor state governments should get in the way of employers who know their workplaces and industries best.
Several public health departments, private hospital networks, physician’s groups, and others filed written testimony opposing the bill.
“[The Ohio State Medical Association] is extremely concerned about the impact of legislation that would discourage vaccination rates in Ohio,” said Monica Hueckel, a lobbyist for the doctors’ organization. “It is particularly troubling as the Delta variant continues to spread, the new Omicron variant starts to show up across the country, and positive COVID-19 cases in Ohio have been rising recently.”
A DeWine spokesman said Tuesday the governor maintains that the federal government shouldn’t require anyone to get vaccinated, but the state government shouldn’t block employers from doing so. He declined to offer a more specific position on the bill itself.
The bill drew support from a member of the Ohio Christian Alliance and several grass roots anti-vaccination activists. However, one anti-vaccination organization, the Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, criticized the bill for not going far enough.
President Stephanie Stock said lamented in written testimony it prohibits “discrimination” against people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine but doesn’t address similar vaccinations. She also criticized the bill for allowing children’s hospitals to adopt stricter vaccination policies than other health care arenas. Stock has spent the majority of the pandemic seeding dubious information about vaccine safety or the alleged inefficacy of masks. She recently submitted paperwork as an early step to gather more than 130,000 signatures required to place a more expansive vaccine mandate ban on the general election ballot.
Peterson did not specify any future plans or timing for the legislation.