Georgia senators seek to ban state vaccine mandates for year

Republicans supporting Senate Bill 345 say the state shouldn’t be able to force the inoculation against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Audio report by Rahul Bali.

Georgia senators want to prevent state agencies and local governments from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, voting 31-19 on Friday to ban such requirements until mid-2023.

Republicans supporting Senate Bill 345, which moves to the House for more debate, say the state shouldn’t be able to force the inoculation against the respiratory illness. Democrats say the GOP is kowtowing to misinformation on vaccines, discouraging a protective measure in a state that is close to the bottom in vaccination rates according to federal data.

“I think everybody should have vaccinations,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga. “I just don’t think that state government should mandate it.”

Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat who is a physician and holds a master’s degree in public health, said the bill would feed unfounded beliefs that the vaccine would somehow be unsafe.

“This bill undermines public trust in the COVID vaccine, full stop,” Au said. “Whether explicitly or not, it gives oxygen to the idea that people should be skeptical of the demonstrated safety and efficacy of a vital public health tool that here in the state of Georgia is still vastly underutilized.”

But some Republicans said people were right to mistrust COVID-19 vaccines even though they have been administered billions of times worldwide.

“There’s so much that we don’t know about this,” said Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican. “And that is why a lot people are hesitant to take the vaccine.”

Sen Greg Dolezal, a Cumming Republican, accused Democrats of hypocrisy for attacks they made on the vaccine development process when Donald Trump was still president as being the ones who sowed “doubt and corrosive messaging.”

“I support this bill. Mandates have not worked,” Dolezal said. “The vaccine is a decision between individuals and their doctor.”

As originally written, Mullis’ bill would have barred schools from requiring proof of any vaccinations at all. Mullis has said that’s not what he intended. But the measure is likely to make at least one vaccine mandate unenforceable. The Decatur school system suburban Atlanta requires teachers to have the vaccination and booster shot against the virus. No other school systems in Georgia are known to have required employees to get vaccinated.

As amended, the measure excludes health care facilities that are subject to federal mandates for their employees to get vaccinated to continue receiving federal payments. That exemption was key because many Georgia hospitals are owned by city or county health care authorities.

Opponents warned that despite the changes, that it’s difficult to anticipate future circumstances and the bill could hamstring response in a resurgence of COVID-19.

“And it’s a small sacrifice that we’re asking with a vaccine mandate,” said Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Grayson Democrat. “It’s a small sacrifice for the greater good to take care of people.”