Debate continues on Ohio bill that would allow vaccination mandate exemptions

The status of House Bill 435, the “Ohio COVID-19 Vaccine Fairness Act” that would create several exemptions to employer coronavirus vaccination mandates, remains murky after two days of hearings before the Ohio House Commerce & Labor Committee.

As the hearing adjourned Thursday, committee member state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, asked how the bill was expected to proceed.

“At this point we are informally hearing the bill,” said state Rep. Dick Stein, R-Norwalk, committee chairman. “In that capacity it is in this committee. In terms of what the future lies for 435, I have not had a chance or heard from leadership.”

He’s still not sure if the bill will be referred for a formal hearing, he said.

Neither the bill’s authors, state Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., nor a spokesperson for House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, responded immediately to questions about the bill’s status.

Committee member state Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, asked several questions indicating she would like to add a paid leave requirement for workers affected by COVID-19 to the bill.

House Republican leadership framed HB 435 as a comprehensive replacement for several competing bills on requirements related to COVID-19. It passed the House Health Committee on an 11-3 party-line vote Sept. 28 and was brought before the full House for a vote the next day — but there it stalled. Business and public health leaders said it would undermine employers’ ability to manage their workplaces and efforts to stop the pandemic. Legislators expressed enough doubts to instead send the bill back to committee for more work.

Cupp said then that he had no set deadline.

Under the bill as proposed, schools, colleges and employers could require students and workers to get a fully approved COVID-19 vaccine, but with exemptions:

· A medical exemption signed by their primary doctor.

· Natural immunity from having already had COVID-19.

· Reasons of religion or conscience.

The exemptions do not apply to people who work in children’s hospitals, in hospital intensive or critical care units, who work with infectious organisms, or anyone who starts a job after the bill goes into effect.

Should HB 435 win final approval, it would go into effect 90 days later, meaning it would likely not be in force until at least early 2022. Its provisions would expire June 30, 2023.

All of Thursday’s speakers opposed the bill but for different reasons.

Dr. Joe Gastaldo, who specializes in infectious disease at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, said the range of exemptions offered in HB 435 effectively renders any employer mandates useless, Gastaldo said. And there is no test to prove natural immunity, rendering that standard superfluous, he said.

Gastaldo urged legislators not to pass the bill, or at least to remove exemptions for any hospital employees.

Keith Lake, vice president of government affairs for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said businesses that implement vaccination mandates are deciding based on what will best keep them operating.

“In short, these kinds of bills limit employers’ freedom to operate their businesses,” he said.

The chamber does not necessarily favor vaccine mandates, but believes employers should have that option, Lake said.

Other speakers denounced the bill as infringing on personal freedom, claimed “Big Pharma” is killing people for profit, and disparaged the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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