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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan GOP eyes limits to vaccine, mask rules. Health officials dismayed

rally in Lansing
Michigan Republicans increasingly are setting their sights on fighting rules that require vaccinations or masks in public places. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Sept. 14: Republicans advance bills to bar Michigan school mask mandates
Aug. 27:
 Wayne County issues school mask mandate for all students, staff
Aug. 25: Almost half of Michigan students now in schools with COVID mask mandates

Aug. 23: Pfizer vaccine wins full approval. Will Michigan's hesitant take it now?

Michigan Republicans who spent months fighting state pandemic restrictions that were fully lifted last month have shifted their focus to preventing vaccine and mask mandates by businesses, schools and local governments.

A state House committee on Thursday will begin debate on legislation that would prohibit private businesses and public employers from “discriminating against” employees who are not vaccinated from COVID-19, the common flu or even tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

Top GOP leaders also want parents to fight COVID-19 mask mandates in schools around the state, and at least one northern Michigan county is poised to require vaccine promotions to also warn of any risks.

 

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The proposed state ban on vaccine mandates would also bar businesses — including hospitals — from forcing unvaccinated workers to wear a surgical face mask "as a consequence" of not getting vaccinated. 

And employees fired for refusing vaccines would have new rights to sue and recover financial “damages,” even though legal experts and the federal government say businesses have the authority to mandate inoculation for at-will employees. 

"People should have a right as to what's going into their body, what's being injected into them," sponsoring Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, told Bridge Michigan. 

"We've always been as a society active participants in the decision-making process for medical procedures and medications. And to have a mandate come down is taking away a person's individual rights."

Public health officials have consistently recommended COVID-19 vaccines to protect against a deadly virus, which has killed more than 20,000 MIchiganders since March 2020 and is surging again in southern states. 

Michigan’s vaccination rate among those 16 and older is stalled at 61 percent, and health officials argue that Republican legislation like Allor's undermines vaccination efforts and fosters mistrust of science. 

"I don't know if that's the intent, but that's the effect," said Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt. "We don't need to be deterring people from getting vaccinated or encouraging them not to. We need to allow employers to do what's best for their workplace and get everything up and running again."

In an interview with Bridge, Allor argued unvaccinated Michiganders should do their own research, as they would with a surgery or other medical procedure, and she noted the FDA has not yet given final approval to COVID vaccines initially available through emergency use authorization.

"When a health department is pushing this, I don't know if they've really stopped to look at available data — pros and cons — looked at the whole picture to truly consider potential implications," she said. "We don't know what the long-term effects may be."

But those in public health say data and the latest science guide all their recommendations.

“Sadly the pandemic has become political. The mitigation measures that, in normal times, we would recommend for different (diseases) — now they're very polarized,” said Nick Derusha, president of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, which represents health officers for the state’s 45 health departments.

Public health strives to be apolitical, he said. But that’s difficult when school districts — facing angry parents on both sides of a mask mandate debate — turn to public health departments to sort it out, and employers consider vaccine mandates.

“All of us heard pretty loud and clear last year that ‘We don't want mandates. We don't want orders. Let us do the things we need to do (and) take personal responsibility,’” he said. 

“So that's what we're trying to do — trying to utilize the approach of providing information and giving our best recommendations to folks,” he said. “Now we're hearing from some that that may not be enough.”

Government intrusion?

The fight against vaccine mandates is a new wrinkle for Republicans in Lansing who traditionally oppose government interference in the private sector. The bill being considered Thursday would limit the ability of business owners to run their companies as they see fit. 

"Many people look at government as being too intrusive into business operations,” Allor acknowledged, “but the reality is government is intrusive in business operations. It happens all the time."

Brian Calley, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan, told Bridge he is not aware of any businesses outside of the healthcare industry that are mandating vaccines for their employees. 

His business group opposes Allor’s legislation.

"Our members are very opposed to government rules mandating or prohibiting specific safety practices," said Calley, a Republican former lieutenant governor. "The small business owner is in the best position to know what is necessary to keep their employees and customers safe."

The legislation would apply to health care institutions like Henry Ford and Trinity Health that have already mandated vaccines for employees, along with state and local governments. 

It’s not immediately clear if the legislation would apply to universities like Michigan and Michigan State that have already announced vaccine mandates. Both are publicly funded but claim autonomy under the Michigan constitution. 

Anti-vaccination activists are encouraging their supporters to flood Thursday’s legislative hearing in a show of force, as they've done for other controversial bills like a House-approved ban on "vaccine passports."

Allor told Bridge Michigan she is willing to compromise and would consider removing the face mask language in order to secure votes for the legislation, which Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is likely to veto should it reach her desk. 

Whitmer said last month she was not planning to mandate vaccines for state government employees, as Democratic President Joe Biden did at the federal level, but she has consistently rejected legislation that would limit the state’s authority to fight the pandemic. 

Allor said she has personally chosen not to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of a prior medical condition. But the lawmaker said she also assisted constituents who wanted the vaccine but struggled to find a provider when doses first became available. 

"If somebody wants a vaccine, that is their decision. If somebody doesn't want any vaccine or any medication, they should have that choice," Allor said.

Delusional behavior?

Some Michigan Republicans have also set their sights on school boards,  criticizing districts choosing to mandate masks this fall, a decision that has fallen to local leaders in the absence of any statewide rule. 

Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, in a Monday statement, dismissed mask mandates as an example of “delusional behavior from liberal administrators who deal more in virtue signaling than science and safety.”

Jody Job, chair of the Oakland County Democratic Party, called Maddock's comment "unconscionable" and likened it to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater full of children. 

As of Tuesday, Genesee appeared to be the only county in the state with its own mask mandate from a public health officer, after the health department ordered students and staff in kindergarten through 6th grade to mask up. Wayne County, the state's largest, on Tuesday issued a "strong recommendation" for public and private schools to require universal masking.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, called school mask mandates "the dumbest thing we could possibly do” because younger people are less likely to suffer serious symptoms if they contract COVID-19. 

Shirkey’s comments contradict recommendations from health officials, including those at both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Community Health. 

Mask use "has been proven to substantially reduce transmission in school settings," MDHHS said last week in a new guidance. "This prevention strategy is crucial to allowing students to maintain in-person learning." 

"The national media has this drum beat that we have a 'pandemic of the unvaccinated.' Well, that's just a bunch of crap," Shirkey said. 

Health officials say most recent COVID-19 cases have been among the unvaccinated, however. 

Between January 15 and July 21, 98 percent of Michiganders known to have contracted COVID-19 were not fully vaccinated, according to state data analyzed by the University of Michigan

While there have been "breakthrough" cases, fully vaccinated individuals accounted for 5 percent of the 11,494 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 4,864 deaths over that span.

New rules in Grand Traverse

While Republicans in Lansing fight the potential for new vaccine mandates, local officials appear to be following the same playbook. 

In Grand Traverse County, Republican commissioners are poised to vote Wednesday on a resolution that would prohibit the county government from mandating COVID-19 vaccine mandates and create new requirements for any health department promotional materials. 

Under the proposal from GOP Chair Rob Hentschel, the county health department could only promote vaccines if it directs citizens to  "discuss the risks and benefits of (any COVID-19 vaccine) with their chosen healthcare provider."

The Grand Traverse resolution would also prohibit the county from requiring proof of vaccination of employees or contractors and discourages private businesses from adopting mandates that "hinder medical autonomy."

Hentschel did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his proposed resolution, but Commissioner Betsy Coffia told Bridge Michigan she was "disheartened" to see Grand Traverse dragged into "another polarizing fight."

Politicians are not medical experts and should not be telling Public Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger how to do her job, said Coffia, who is one of two Democrats on the seven-member county commission. 

"It's tying her hands, and it's us stepping into her lane of expertise and trying to tell her how to manage a public health crisis. We don't have the expertise to do that, and I think it's a mistake."

But it appears likely the GOP majority will adopt the proposal Wednesday.

Darryl Nelson, a moderate Republican who is considered a swing vote on the commission, told Bridge Michigan he plans to support the resolution, which he argued has been misconstrued.

"A lot of people aren't getting the vaccine, and I think one of the reasons is because they're being told it's something they've got to do," Nelson said. 

Residents can find any number of opinions about the vaccines online, with various sources calling it everything from the"mark of the beast" to the "best thing that ever happened," Nelson said. 

“We’re hopeful that people will talk to their trusted health care provider to find out the benefits of the vaccine for them personally."

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