Georgia senators vote to bar COVID-19 vaccine requirements

Middle school student Elise Robinson receives a coronavirus vaccination on May 12, 2021, in Decatur, Ga. A bill passed on Wednesday, Feb, 1 2023, by a Georgia Senate committee would ban public schools, local governments or state agencies from requiring people to get the COVID-19 vaccine before they could attend school or receive government services. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)

Georgia senators voted Tuesday to permanently block schools and most state and local government agencies from requiring people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Senate voted 31-21 in favor of the bill, which would make permanent what had been a one-year ban enacted in 2022.

Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Republican from Cumming who is sponsoring the measure, said that when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine at least, the government shouldn’t be able to force anyone to get it, or refuse services to people who are unvaccinated.

“I don’t believe that government should discriminate against citizens based on COVID-19 vaccinations,” Dolezal said.

The current one-year ban was part of a broad conservative nationwide backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness, but it would expire on June 30 in Georgia if lawmakers don’t extend it.

Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said the majority is “fundamentally signing on to the anti-vaccination movement” and tying the hands of government if COVID-19 again worsens.

“We know that there’s been a movement building in America to demonize vaccinations and do it in the name of individual rights,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat.

The measure bars state agencies, local governments, schools and colleges from requiring proof of vaccination. But because governments and schools can’t require proof, they can’t enforce mandates.

Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican and medical doctor, argues that because COVID-19 has grown less severe, a mandate isn’t needed.

“The science certainly has evolved, the disease certainly has evolved,” Watson said.

Democrats argued that the toll of the illness has declined in part because of vaccines and other public health measures. They warned there’s no guarantee that the virus will stay less lethal.

“This virus is still mutating,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat.

Dolezal has said he plans a separate bill that would make permanent the existing five-year ban on schools being able to require children to wear masks.

The state Department of Public Health declined to state a position on the bill, saying it doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

The Georgia chapters of both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians oppose the measure, saying it will hurt Georgia’s ability to fight continuing COVID-19 infections, encourage the erosion of other existing vaccine requirements for public school and college students, and hurt Georgia’s ability to fight future pandemics.

The measure excludes health care facilities that are subject to federal mandates for their employees to get vaccinated to continue receiving federal payments.

Medical experts agree COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and even with millions getting the shots, confirmed reports of deaths caused by vaccination are extremely rare.

More than 1.1 million people in the country have died from COVID-19 since 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 42,000 people in Georgia have died from the virus.