Senate OKs bill for refusal of mandatory vaccination in epidemic, after removing broader exemption for required school shots

Sen. Mike Wilson

This story has been updated to reflect the bill’s Senate passage on Feb. 4. 

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill that would give Kentuckians the ability to opt out of a mandatory vaccination during an epidemic passed out of its committee and the full Senate in just two days; it now heads to the House for consideration.

Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, would allow several exemptions for “any child or adult” in Kentucky who doesn’t want to receive a vaccine that the state mandates during an epidemic or a pandemic.

“Currently that is not something that is happening. The cabinet has not exercised their ability to mandate that, nor has the governor through an executive order — and say they will not,” Wilson said at the Feb. 3 Senate Health & Welfare committee meeting. “However, in the future, we wanted to make sure there was an exemption.”

Beshear spokesman Sebastian Kitchen told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the governor does not plan to require vaccinations.

SB 8 passed the Senate on a vote of 34-1-1, with Sen. Morgan McGarvey casting the only ‘no’ vote and Sen. Gerald Neal voting to “pass.” Both are Democrats from Louisville.

“I vote no on this measure,” McGarvey said on the Senate floor. ” I appreciate the work that has been done, but I stand today with the Kentucky Medical Association, the Greater Global Medical Society and  the Kentucky chapter of  the American Association of Pediatrics opposing this measure, because it is unduly vague and overly broad.”

At the committee meeting, Wilson stressed that he is not an anti-vaxxer and that he was sponsoring this bill because so many people had reached out to him.
“I have had numerous people reach out to me who, under the circumstances with Covid, with all the mandates that were coming down from Frankfort, did not want to be made to take the vaccine,” he said.The bill would allow adults. emancipated minors and parents making decisions for their children to opt out of mandatory vaccines in an epidemic for religious grounds, medical reasons or a “conscientiously held belief.”

Wilson’s original bill would have provided a loophole for parents of public school children to be exempted from vaccines required for admission to school, but the committee adopted a committee substitute without that language. Currently, students can be exempted for medical or religious reasons.

More than 30 organizations sent senators a letter dated Feb. 1 opposing the original bill, saying, “Our concern is that SB 8 has broad overreaching implications and would result in unintended negative health impacts to all Kentuckians, especially our school-age children and those who are immunocompromised.”

Wilson said SB 8 would have no effect on employers.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, a physician and the committee chair, spent several minutes during the committee meeting talking about the importance of vaccines, offering concern that we now have a whole generation of people who have never witnessed a lot of the “ugly diseases and disorders” that resulted from diseases now controlled by vaccines.

But he said there is a fine line with government involvement. He said he supports public-health efforts to isolate people who have a disease, but not necessarily requiring them to get a preventive vaccine. “We can’t really force people to do the prevention, they have to make that decision themselves,” Alvarado said. “This provides choice for people.”

The Herald-Leader reports that Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey was the only “no” vote at the committee meeting, citing the fact that the medical community opposed the bill.

At least five other bills have been filed related to immunizations. Senate Bill 117, sponsored by freshman Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, would allow students at independent institutions and postsecondary education institutions, and those who work in health facilities, to be exempt from vaccine requirements for medical reasons, religious beliefs or other conscientiously held beliefs.

Other vaccine bills, according to the Louisville Courier Journal, are:

  • House Bill 36, sponsored by Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, is described as “ensuring basic liberties regarding immunizations,” and would bar the government from requiring any person to get a vaccine.
  • Senate Bill 37, sponsored by Sen. Rick Girdler, R-Somerset, would bar the government from requiring anyone to get a vaccine and also would prohibit employers from requiring employees to get a vaccine.
  • Senate Bill 98, sponsored by Southworth, would prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations and bans discrimination against an employee who declines to get a vaccination.
  • House Bill 101, sponsored by Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth, would prohibit public and private postsecondary schools or colleges from requiring students to be vaccinated except for students in health care programs.

The Kentucky Coalition for Healthy Children, with over 100 members, sent a letter dated Feb. 2 to Alvarado and Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, chair of the House Health and Family Services Committee, in opposition to all the bills. They also provided a vaccination fact sheet. The letter said, “Passage of any of these bills would significantly threaten the health and safety of Kentucky’s children and of the general population.”

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