Arkansas lawmakers spit and bluster over federal vaccine rules they can do nothing about

State lawmakers took the opportunity Monday afternoon to rail against federal vaccine requirements in medical and military settings, but again failed to suss out a workaround to the Supremacy Clause that leaves them completely out of luck here.

Members of the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee heard from the dad of a 20-year-old nursing student at the University of Central Arkansas who is considering dropping out of the program rather than get a COVID-19 vaccine. While state entities in Arkansas, including colleges and universities, are barred by state law from requiring the vaccine, the hospitals and clinics where nursing students do the rotations they must complete to graduate often require staff to be vaccinated.

The dad, Chad Bond, said he’s called UCA to plead on his daughter’s behalf. “They have made it very clear to these students that if you don’t get these shots, you will not meet the objective,” he told lawmakers.

It makes little sense that someone pursuing a degree in the medical field would reject a vaccine approved by the F.D.A. and proven to be effective. But Bond said he does not believe the vaccine is effective at preventing infection or slowing the pandemic’s spread. (He is wrong. The vaccine is proven to reduce infection rates, and therefore slow the spread, but Bond’s misunderstanding is a common one in Arkansas, where misinformation reigns.)

Unless she can complete her clinical rotations in medical facilities that don’t require staff to be vaccinated, Bond said his daughter will drop out, even though she’s already nearly three years in on her course of study. “She will have to withdraw because of this mandate that UCA has put on her. It’s going to prevent her from pursuing her dreams.”

Lawmakers had dedicated the first few hours of Monday’s meeting to studying redrawn congressional maps that will be considered with the legislature reconvenes Wednesday.

But Sen. Jason Rapert presided over the final hours of the meeting, when Bond and others shared grievances over what Rapert called the “Biden mandate.” President Biden has announced that COVID-19 vaccines are required for federal contractors and staff in all hospitals and other medical facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding. That’s pretty much all of the hospitals in the state, said Michael Keck, who was at the meeting to represent the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. About 70 percent of nursing students at UAMS are already vaccinated for COVID-19, and the school already requires a roster of standard vaccinations including MMR, hepatitis and influenza.

Rules about how the vaccine requirement will work in Medicare and Medicaid facilities are still in the works, and Keck said he can’t speculate on when they will take effect and who will be included.

Arkansas lawmakers who spoke on the issue said students who can’t complete their degree programs without getting vaccinated for COVID-19 should get their tuition refunded, or that schools should try to figure out ways to accommodate them by finding them clinics to work in that don’t require vaccines.

“We do not lay down our freedoms when there’s a pandemic,” Rep. Cindy Crawford (R-Fort Smith) said.

Sens. Trent Garner, Dan Sullivan, Alan Clark and Bob Ballinger joined her in railing against federal vaccine requirements, offering up both idealogical objections about personal freedom and debunked claims that the vaccine doesn’t work.

But representatives from the military and the Arkansas National Guard who were asked to testify Monday seemed fine with the vaccine requirement, which they said was nothing new for enlistees. Major General Kendall W. Penn of the Arkansas National Guard said vaccine requirements have been in place in the military for centuries, and are simply a matter of being ready for whatever they’re called to do.

A number of legislators said they’ve heard from constituents who are threatening to drop out of the military rather than take a COVID vaccine. But Air Force veteran Sen. Jim Hendren, a former Republican turned Independent from Gravette, said vaccinations are simply part of the job, and that he worries some military operations in Arkansas might get pulled to different states if Arkansas lawmakers keep making such a big deal about it.

Penn echoed Hendren’s concern about losing out on existing and future military operations, saying that continued resistance to a vaccine that’s widely accepted and F.D.A. approved may “give pause to decision makers on whether Arkansas is the right place to go.”

Rapert also invited Jim Hudson, a deputy director for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, to the meeting to clarify whether people who quit or lost their jobs because they refused the COVID-19 vaccine are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Rapert said he got a phone call just today from a corporation in his district that has federal contracts, and therefore may fall under a new rule that requires vaccines for contractors who do business with the federal government. The new set of rules, announced earlier this month but not yet formalized, also will mandate that employers with 100 or more workers require vaccines or a weekly test.

The courts have already ruled on this, Hudson said. People who can show that they lost their job despite having a legitimate religious or medical exemption are eligible for benefits, he said. People who didn’t take the vaccine for other reasons would not be eligible for unemployment unless the courts rule differently than they have in the past, he said.

Rapert ended the meeting with a vague threat of what he suspects might happen when people rebel against vaccine requirements. “God help anybody who has made decisions that push somebody into a corner like that, and the negative outcomes that result,” he said.

The legislature reconvenes in full Wednesday morning.

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