By Kathleen Peppo
BATON ROUGE–A bill to make discrimination by state entities against people based on whether or not they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 passed the House 70-29 Thursday.
The vote came as faculty members at LSU and other state universities stepped up calls to make the COVID vaccine mandatory for students and staff returning in the fall.
The difference in views illustrates how the COVID vaccinations have become a new partisan flashpoint in Louisiana and other conservative states, much like mask-wearing was earlier.
Rep. Kathy Edmondston, R-Gonzales, said she brought the bill in response to calls from constituents who feared they would be discriminated against if they did not get a COVID vaccine.
“I’ve had numerous calls over the last several months from parents, citizens, but mostly from students who have been required or mandated to take vaccines or testing, that have led me to bring this bill forward,” Edmonston said.
The LSU Faculty Senate voted 52-1 last month to call for a vaccine requirement to help protect unvaccinated staff members and students and people with compromised immune systems. The university has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday that is open to all faculty members to discuss safety issues.
The University of New Orleans Faculty Senate voted 29-0-3 last week to strongly recommend that all faculty members, staff and students get the vaccine.
Three private schools in New Orleans–Tulane University, Xavier University and Dillard University–are among more than 400 nationwide that plan to require COVID vaccinations for students returning in the fall, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. Roughly 180 of those colleges are public institutions, mostly in Democratic-leaning states.
After the House passed the bill, Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, tweeted, “Do I have this right? Discrimination that is ok with #lalege: gender, race, hair. Discrimination that is apparently not ok: refusing a vaccine, wearing a mask, anything to do with guns.”
State universities in Louisiana already require vaccines for diseases like measles and meningitis for students to enroll in school. More than 135 LSU faculty members have signed a letter urging that the COVID19 be vaccine added to that list.
Under Edmonston’s bill, state universities could keep the requirements for the other vaccines but would not be allowed to add a COVID vaccine mandate.
Edmonston said that if her bill makes it into law, no state school would be able to require the COVID vaccine. The bill still must be considered by the Senate, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, would have to decide whether to veto it or not.
“Those students who have contacted me believe that their ability to complete their degree requirements or coursework were in jeopardy,” said Edmonston.
Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, said that he, too, had gotten calls from constituents concerned about possible university vaccine mandates.
“I got some calls from constituents, students in LSU’s dental school that received correspondence that said they could not come back to dental school or enter until they had been vaccinated,” Beaullieu said.
In March, the dean of the LSU School of Dentistry attempted to mandate COVID vaccinations for the fall but then backtracked after protests.
“I got those same calls, Rep. Beaullieu, not only from the dental school but from the nursing school, from Southeastern, and I got a call from Centenary this morning,” Edmonston said. “That’s why I’m bringing the legislation forward.”
Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said he had received similar calls from constituents concerned about being able to complete school without being vaccinated.
He also maintained that even if private universities create a vaccine requirement, “they can’t enforce it.”
“The governor has not said that we have to have vaccines,” Bagley said. “So, as long as he doesn’t, we’re still under the executive order, they cannot make you take a vaccine to do anything. That’s the law.”
One statewide survey has suggested that more than 40 percent of Republicans do not intend to get a COVID vaccine, compared to 13 percent of Democrats.
LSU faculty members cite data indicating that fewer than 20% of Louisianians in ages 18-29 have been vaccinated.
They are concerned that LSU is planning to return to pre-pandemic class sizes with little social distancing, and some worry that this could prompt senior faculty members with health concerns to leave the school or retire.
Top officials at LSU and the University of Louisiana System say it also would be hard to require COVID vaccines since they were made available under federal emergency rules and have not yet been fully approved.
They say that they will do what they can to balance safety concerns with a return to in-person instruction while considering letting some professors with health risks teach online.