The Lead

GOP bill stripping powers from Secretary of Health, banning public vaccine checks advances through Pa. House

By: - June 23, 2021 6:22 pm

Vaccination is one way we can help get kids back to in-person activities (FG Trade/Getty Images/The Conversation).

A proposal to restrict the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health’s powers during health emergencies and ban government agencies, including schools, from checking for proof of a COVID-19 vaccine passed the state House in a 112-89 party line vote Wednesday.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had already said he does not plan to implement restrictions on accessing government buildings or resources based on vaccination status — proposals colloquially called “vaccine passports.” 

Still, the proposal has sailed through the General Assembly. It would prevent all local or state government entities — including school districts — from requiring COVID-19 vaccines to use services or enter public buildings. 

“This is not the last time we’re going to go through a pandemic. Are we going to have a passport for diabetes? Are we going to have a passport for HIV? Where does it end? We’re going to shame people,” said state Rep. Eric Davanzo, R-Westmoreland.

The bill also bans colleges and universities that receive state funding, including grants from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, from mandating vaccines for staff or students. 

Dozens of schools in Pennsylvania, including the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, and Franklin and Marshall College, have already mandated staff and students receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

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College students in Pennsylvania are already required to receive meningitis vaccines under Act 83 of 2002. The law passed the House unanimously, including with the support of a number of senior Republicans and Democrats still serving today.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, was in the General Assembly when the law was approved. 

“We acted responsibly” then, Frankel said. “This piece of legislation is irresponsible.”

He added it makes “second-class citizens” of individuals in publicly-funded facilities. While privately-owned nursing homes could still mandate vaccines for staff or visitors, those living in the same with public ownership would not receive the same protections.

Democrats attempted to amend the bill Tuesday to carve out exemptions and allow such state- run facilities, as well as centers for people with disabilities and veterans’ homes, to mandate vaccines. But those changes were all voted down.

As of Wednesday, 62 percent of Pennsylvanians have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is currently approved under an emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which allows pharmaceutical companies to give out shots while comprehensive testing is still underway.

The proposal in the General Assembly, sponsored by State Sen. Kirstin Phillips-Hill, R-York, also rewrites state law governing the Department of Health, and restricts the health secretary from mandating masks, closing businesses, or restricting travel in response to any health crisis now or in the future.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said the governor would veto the bill due to the latter provisions.

The provision “is dangerous and would undermine any attempt to protect public health in any circumstance.”

It now heads back to the Senate for a final approval before it goes to Wolf’s desk.

During the debate, Democratic legislators said Wednesday’s vote was a distraction from ongoing budget negotiations, which are going on behind closed doors between Wolf and House and Senate GOP leadership.

“Vaccine passports are not a real thing, and it’s something that needs to be said over and over and over again,” state Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, told reporters after the vote. “We cannot legislate based on conspiracy theories.”

A spending plan for the next fiscal year, including how to spend $7.3 billion in federal stimulus aid, is expected to pass within the next few days.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.