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Tennessee bill would expand coronavirus vaccine exemptions

Tennessee would no longer prohibit parents from refusing vaccinations of their children under a proposal that’s been filed as COVID-19 cases continue to rise ahead of the GOP-dominant Statehouse’s upcoming legislative session.
(WCJB)
Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 11:13 PM EST
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee would no longer prohibit parents from refusing vaccinations of their children under a proposal that’s been filed as COVID-19 cases continue to rise ahead of the GOP-dominant Statehouse’s upcoming legislative session.

Tennessee law currently allows parents to refuse to immunize their children as long as the state is “in the absence of an epidemic or immediate threat of an epidemic.” Other sections of Tennessee statute allow parents to deny immunizations of their kids “except where the medical examination, immunization or treatment is necessary for the protection of the health or safety of others.”

These exceptions would be removed according to the legislation, allowing parents to opt out of school-required vaccinations during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill also would give parents the option to cite “right of conscience” as a reason not to immunize their children.

Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, and Sen. Mark Pody, a Republican from Lebanon, are the lead sponsors of the legislation. They introduced the bill earlier this week. “I do believe that if you have a religious exemption, then we the government should not shut that option down,” Reedy told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday.

“It’s never happened before, will it happen in the future? It’s all in the air,” he said. Reedy added that he began working on the legislation earlier this year after being contacted by Gary Humble, executive director of Tennessee Stands - a group that has challenged local and state restrictions put in place over the past few months to curb the spread of COVID-19. “It may be that in a few months there won’t really be a fear that government can override your religious exemptions,” Reedy said, noting it’s likely the legislation will be amended should it pass the Tennessee Statehouse.

Reedy said he was open to getting a coronavirus vaccination and was intending to get a flu shot as well. Lawmakers won’t consider taking up the proposal until the General Assembly kicks off its 2021 session in January. In the interim, the state’s top health officials are working on developing a distribution plan once a coronavirus vaccine is available. The health department has said first responders will be the state’s top priority during the vaccine’s initial distribution phases, with health care workers being the next priority.

At the end of the 2019-20 school year, 95% of Tennessee kindergarteners were reported to be fully immunized, according to the health department’s latest annual report. However, the report said there’s been a noticeable uptick in the number of families using the religious exemption.

The report hypothesized families were likely using that exemption “in lieu of a personal philosophical exemption,” even though doing so could result in a penalty of perjury. Students in private schools particularly saw a higher use of the religious exemption.

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee on Friday adopted a new immunization rule that allows the school to require students to have both the flu and coronavirus vaccinations. The rule will exempt students who enrolled only online and are not participating in in-person learning, and also will allow for medical or religious exemptions.

With a COVID-19 vaccine drawing closer, public health officials across the country are gearing up for the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history - a monumental undertaking that must distribute hundreds of millions of doses, prioritize who’s first in line and ensure that people who get the initial shot return for the necessary second one.

The push could begin as early as next month, when federal officials say the first vaccine may be authorized for emergency use and immediately deployed to high-risk groups, such as health care workers. Potential vaccines are still in the trial phase and have not been approved. They must be safe and effective before approval for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Late Friday, the Shelby County Health Department issued an order requiring restaurants to limit occupancy to 50% and close at 10 p.m. rather than midnight. Schools are strongly encouraged to suspend all school-related, close-contact sports. And gym patrons and employees must wear facial coverings at all times, except when in the swimming pool or shower, the health department said.

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