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A sweeping ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees of private Texas businesses passed the Texas Senate early Friday, although medical facilities would be allowed to enact other policies to help lower the risks to vulnerable patients.
Senate Bill 7, by Galveston Republican Sen. Mayes Middleton, would subject private employers to state fines and other actions if they fire or punish employees or contractors who refuse the shot.
The bill offers no exceptions for doctors’ offices, clinics or other health facilities, but senators did agree to allow those entities to require unvaccinated employees to wear personal protective gear such as face masks or take other “reasonable” measures to manage the spread.
The legislation passed on a 19-12 party line vote just after midnight and is heading to the House, where similar efforts stalled out earlier this year. It now awaits referral to a House committee.
The vote comes after years of Republican attempts to reign in COVID-related restrictions like mask mandates and vaccine requirements. Supporters said the bill is critical to support individual rights to make their own health care decisions without negative consequences to their livelihoods.
“No one should be forced to make that awful decision between making a living for their family and their health or individual vaccine preference,” Middleton told senators during a bill hearing earlier this week.
Opponents argued that the coronavirus is still dangerous to many people, that it can lead to long COVID even in those who experience mild symptoms, and that the ban takes away the ability of health care professionals to institute vaccine policies that lower the risk of viral spread for their patients. It also, some critics say, infringes on the rights of business owners to make their own policy decisions.
Including health care facilities and doctors’ offices in the ban triggered objections by two members of the Senate Health and Human Services committee who have had kidney transplants — Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston.
It also drew skepticism by the Republican chair of the committee, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who on Thursday supported allowing health care facilities to enact other policies for employees who choose not to be vaccinated.
“I think that we’ve been able to put the words in place that give us a good sound policy, that going forward if a health care worker does not want to be vaccinated, that the hospital or the health care facility can help mitigate that with mask and gloves and different things, but it has to be reasonable,” Kolkhorst said during the floor debate.
Experts in the medical and scientific community say the COVID-19 vaccine does not prevent the spread entirely, but it can reduce transmission and significantly diminish symptoms and severity of the illness.
Bill purists fought against allowing health care providers to circumvent, even slightly, the ban proposed by Middleton’s legislation and wanted to see it passed as originally written.
Both Middleton and state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, have openly said they don’t trust the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Hall said earlier this week that he believes the pandemic and vaccine response was a test by the government to find out how people will react when the state forces them to mask up, lock down, and take a vaccine — then subsequently controls their lives.
In late 2021, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning the mandates, but it led to confusion over who was covered by the order and how enforceable it was. That order expired in June, triggering a legislative attempt to codify it during the regular session earlier this year. After that attempt failed, Abbott added the issue to the agenda for this year’s third special legislative session.
A new state law banning governmental entities from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine went into effect last month.
Kolkhorst said earlier this week that the debate comes down to a mistrust of science stemming from a lack of what she and some others believe is reliable data on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Legislation she and Middleton carried during the regular session earlier this year included exemptions for all private employers that allow employees to opt out for medical or conscience reasons.
It also would have exempted health care facilities from the ban on vaccine mandates as long as they didn’t force employees to take it if their doctors determined they were medically not a good candidate.
In both cases, the business or facility also would have been required to have procedures for unvaccinated staff to protect other employees from exposure.
That bill passed the Senate but died near the end of the regular session in May without a hearing in a House committee. A similar effort died in 2021 after business groups rallied against it.