Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday he is overriding a bipartisan House committee vote that strongly opposed adding COVID-19 vaccines to Louisiana K-12 school immunizations lists.
Edwards sent a letter Tuesday to the House Committee on Health and Welfare, notifying chair Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, he is authorizing the Louisiana Department of Health to proceed with the effective school vaccine mandate.
“While I understand that any issue around COVID-19, especially those that involve our children, can be divisive, I ask that you and your colleagues work with me to get more people in Louisiana vaccinated,” Edwards wrote.
The committee voted 13-2 last week in opposition to the governor and Health Department’s student immunization plan.
Nearly two dozen legislators testified before the committee, along with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; Attorney General Jeff Landry; Massachusetts vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr.; and an estimated 200 parents and state residents who submitted public comment requests – the vast majority of whom opposed the vaccine mandate.
Edwards, a Democrat, strongly supports COVID-19 vaccines and said children will not be forced to receive them “if their parents object in writing.”
Edwards' letter likened the vaccinations to those that eradicated diseases that harmed children in the past and now are part of the required immunization list for attending school.
“It is worth noting that while many of the diseases on the public health immunization schedule were once both rampant and deadly, they are no longer serious risks for school age children in Louisiana,” he said. “This is true because almost everyone was vaccinated against these diseases, many as a condition for attending elementary school.
“One can only imagine where we would be as a state if the same overheated rhetoric from last week’s meeting was applied to Polio or Measles,” Edwards added.
The House committee hearing was the first public opportunity lawmakers had to confront the governor’s administrative rule. Many charged Edwards was improperly bypassing the Legislature by attempting to enact an overly broad regulation.
The rule process quietly began in September and managed to avoid any previous public hearings or public comments during the required comment period, despite its controversial nature. Critics alleged the process was designed to avoid backlash.
If finalized, the regulation would apply to 16- and 17-year-olds and extend to students as young as age 5 pending FDA approval. Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, said the way the rule is written, the Legislature would not have an opportunity to weigh-in in the future.
Edwards said he is taking action to save lives.
“First and foremost, I am allowing this rule to go into effect because it will save lives and help Louisiana to emerge from this pandemic,” he said. “This rule explicitly provides that any student may be exempted by submitting ‘a written statement from a physician stating that such vaccination is contraindicated for medical reasons, or the individual or his parent or guardian submits a written dissent.’ ”
Many lawmakers said they were pro-vaccine last week but adamantly opposed vaccinating children. Some questioned whether the written opt-out exemption would be too narrow to opt-out in practice.
When Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, pressed for specific COVID-19 statistics regarding children, a Health Department epidemiologist testified that 125,000 children had tested positive in Louisiana during the pandemic. Eighteen had died, she said, of whom 14 had comorbidities.
If the rule is finalized, Louisiana will join California as the only states to require COVID-19 vaccinations for K-12 in-person learning.