Two bills aiming to curb vaccine mandates in North Dakota drew marathon testimony on Tuesday night, with state health officials and medical groups voicing opposition to curtailments on public health measures.
Written By: Adam Willis | 5:00 am, Nov. 10, 2021
Medical scrubs and marker filled messages on signs and bodies highlighted a divided medical community in Dickinson, North Dakota, on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, as protesters gathered in front of CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson in opposition to employment dependent mandates for the COVID-19 vaccine. Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press
BISMARCK — North Dakota health experts and medical groups lined up against proposals to curb vaccine mandates in a packed legislative hearing that stretched long into the night on Tuesday, Nov. 9.
Testimony from public health officials and an array of medical interest groups focused largely on the effectiveness of vaccines and the importance of immunization assessments to control outbreaks of contagious diseases. Their arguments ran up against backers of the anti-mandate legislations who argued that the bills defended personal freedoms and offered protections against vaccine requirements enacted earlier this year by President Joe Biden’s administration.
One of the bills under consideration, introduced by Minot Republican Rep. Bob Paulson, mirrors Montana legislation that bans employer-issued vaccine mandates. The proposal makes an exception for nursing homes that could lose major funding sources under a looming federal mandate, but not for hospitals, which face the same federal requirements.
Paulson told the committee that he believes his bill would protect North Dakotans from having to choose between their jobs and a vaccine and said that the path already charted in Montana should make it easier to avoid legal conflicts with the federal-level mandate.
North Dakota Health Officer Dr. Nizar Wehbi spoke against the proposal and told committee members that its curtailments to vaccine mandates would have spillover effects for other highly contagious diseases like measles, Ebola and hepatitis A. The bill would also deplete public health measures beyond requiring vaccination, Wehbi said, preventing health officials and employers and health care providers from assessing an individual’s immunity status to determine whether they need to be cared for differently from someone who has protections against a virus.
“These tools are basic community health principles,” Wehbi said.
Other groups expressing opposition to Paulson’s bill included the North Dakota Hospital Association and the North Dakota Medical Association.
North Dakota Correctional Health Authority director Dr. John Hagan expressed similar concerns about the implications of the banning vaccination requirements in the state prison system, which he likened to “a land-locked cruise ship… packed closer than this room.”
“This bill will remove some essential tools,” Hagan said. “It will cause harm.”
Anti-vaccine mandate legislation has drawn vocal support in North Dakota in the months since the Legislature recessed from its regular session earlier this year, and Tuesday’s hearing came a day after hundreds of people gathered on the state capitol lawn for a rally against immunization requirements.
North Dakota leaders, including Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, have voiced opposition to the Biden administration’s recently enacted mandate and last week joined nine other state’s in a lawsuit over the requirement’s impact for employees at large companies.
“When we let the businesses force this onto an individual, we’re moving into an avenue that we can’t go back from,” William Fielhaber, a Minot chiropractor, told the committee Tuesday night. “It will not stop with the COVID vaccine.”
Another proposal to narrow the scope of a “vaccine passport” bill passed earlier this year also drew criticism from several medical groups on Tuesday. The bill, introduced by Hurdsfield Republican Rep. Robin Weisz, would put some guardrails on a recently passed North Dakota law that bars businesses from rejecting customers due to vaccination status.
However, Weisz’s bill adds that employers who require the COVID-19 vaccine must offer a wide range of opt-outs, including allowing employees to regularly test for COVID-19, prove they have antibodies built up or claim medical, religious or philosophical exemptions. If passed, the legislation would automatically expire in August 2023.
Bismarck pediatrician Dr. Joan Connell spoke against the proposal on behalf of the North Dakota Medical Association, highlighting a provision that would prevent health and long-term care providers from requiring information on vaccination status from their patients, information she said would be important to determining how to allocate care.
Wehbi offered neutral testimony on Weisz’s bill and submitted amendments to alter some of its language. Among other issues with the bill, Wehbi noted that it would restrict how often state, local and private entities can test their employees for COVID-19 positivity, capping it at twice per week.
Lawmakers did not take any action on the vaccine mandate bills Tuesday night.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.