Arizona Republicans against mandatory COVID vaccinations for students even though no such mandate exists
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona Senate Republicans are taking credit for standing up to a new push by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have kids vaccinated against COVID before attending school.
Only thing is, the CDC never actually issued a mandate. In fact, the federal agency, in making the recommendation last week, specifically said that such decisions were up to individual states.
But that didn't keep Senate President Karen Fann from lashing out at the CDC.
"This is just another example of how out of touch the federal government and its agencies are with everyday families,'' the Prescott Republican said in a prepared statement Monday. And there was a political component to the press release, coming just weeks ahead of the general election.
"With Republicans currently in control of our state government, we can promise that we will never subject Arizonans to the requirement of an experimental vaccine that has raised questions over long-term health-implications,'' she said.
The dust-up is the result of the CDC's independent vaccine advisers voting last week to add most COVID-19 vaccines offered in this country to the immunization schedules. That resulted in a claim by some, led by Fox talk show host Tucker Carlson, that the move amounted to mandates for school attendance.
Not true, according to agency officials, pointing out nothing in federal law gives them such power.
Fann conceded the point. But she told Capitol Media Services on Monday there is still need for state vigilance, saying there are still ways the government can effectively pressure Arizona to fall in line without a mandate.
It can start, she said, with the "liberal'' states agreeing to go along. Then there is a push on "our more conservative states.''
"And the next step is usually the federal government finds a way to tie money to it,'' Fann said, with promises of additional dollars for states that agree to what it wants, like a COVID vaccine mandate for school-age children, or some financial penalty for not going along.
"And this is how it all starts,'' she said.
One thing GOP lawmakers did do earlier this year is make sure that the governor -- whoever that will be -- or the health department cannot accede to such pressure.
On party-line votes, both the House and Senate approved HB 2086. Sponsored by Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, the measure trims the ability of the Department of Health Services to require certain vaccinations.
Right now the agency can, after going through a rule-making process, add to the list of what is required, though parents can still opt out through religious, medical or personal exemptions. HB 2086, signed by Gov. Doug Ducey specifically takes immunization against COVID-19 or any of its variants off the table.
During debate, the measure drew opposition from Sen. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix.
She cited testimony from Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, who pointed out that the state health director -- a position he previously had held -- cannot simply add a vaccine to the list of what is required for school attendance.
"They have to go through an 18-month-long process that involves a large amount of public testimony and economic impact evaluation,'' Teran said. And she told colleagues that they should not be making a political decision on the issue.
"The purpose behind a vaccine requirement is to keep kids in school, keep them healthy and stop outbreaks,'' Teran said. She said that more children vaccinated increases the chances of "herd immunity,'' where enough people are inoculated to help prevent the spread among those who have medical reasons why they cannot get vaccinated.
Even with the new legal restrictions on their powers to mandate, state health officials still are urging parents to get their youngsters vaccinated.
Just last week, Carla Berg, the agency's deputy director of public health, noted that the Food and Drug Administration authorized a new bivalent Pfizer vaccine for youngsters age 5 through 11 and the Moderna vaccine for ages 6 through 18. Both are designed to protect against not just the original virus but Omicron subvariants.
"I encourage you to consider this booster as part of your child's vaccination schedule,'' she wrote in her public blog.
Fann said HB 2086 is a necessary curb on the state health department, as lawmakers have no control over the CDC or federal government.
"There is more and more stuff coming out now that maybe this stuff isn't quite so safe for kids,'' she said. "I don't think the government ought to be forcing potentially unsafe vaccines or anything else on parents or states.''
Berg doesn't share her assessment of the dangers, even if children are at lesser risk than adults to develop severe illness from COVID.
"There's simply no reason to take this chance when vaccines have proven to be so safe and effective,'' she said.
Berg said children share the risk of developing "long COVID,'' including long-term effects ranging from fatigue to respiratory issues and even "brain fog.'' And she said that, if nothing else, children can pass on the disease to those more vulnerable.
There already is evidence that Arizona parents are hesitant to get their children inoculated.
The latest figures from the state Department of Health Services shows that 73.7% of the state's nearly 7.3 million residents have received one or more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. But the agency said the vaccination rate for those younger than 20 is just 38.3% -- and about 33% for those in the 5-11 age group, five points lower than the national average.
Fann said she is not concerned about that figure.
"I think that because there was so little testing done on this and it's still such a relatively new drug,'' she said. "And now we're finding out there's all these other strains and they want to get a third and fourth vax and everything else, boosters.''
Those are the boosters that Berg just recommended.
Fann, however, said she believes -- as do other lawmakers who supported HB 2086 -- that this should be a choice for parents.
"They might say, 'I'm older, I'm willing to take that risk for me because maybe my system can take it, but no, I'm not going to force it on my 10 year old if I don't know 100% that there won't be any ramifications for them.''
There is only one other proscription in state law that limits the ability of the health department to mandate vaccines: the one for human papilloma virus, an inoculation generally offered to children prior to reaching the age of sexually activity to prevent cancers that can be spread through sexual contact.
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