ATLANTA (AP) — Any COVID-19 vaccine requirement by public schools, state agencies or local governments would be blocked under legislation given final approval by the Georgia House on Thursday.
The House voted 99-69 in favor of Senate Bill 1, which would make permanent what had been a one-year ban enacted in 2022. The measure now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.
Rep. Todd Jones, a Republican from Cumming who supports the measure, said the government shouldn't be able to force anyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine, or refuse services to people who are unvaccinated. He said it should be up to individuals to decide.
“I believe in their freedom and their liberty and I encourage them to take all the proper precautions just like they did before 2020.” Jones said.
The current one-year ban began as part of a nationwide conservative backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the virus, but it would expire on June 30 in Georgia if Kemp doesn't sign the bill into law.
Opponents warned that lawmakers will keep the government from taking action if there's another virus outbreak.
“We cannot anticipate future events, variants or public needs," said Rep Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat and physician. "Bills like this tie our hands with respect to the response we can provide and they limit our toolbox whether or not we think we need the tools at present or not.”
They also warned that supporters were contributing to wrongful beliefs that are driving down vaccination rates not only for COVID-19 but for all diseases.
“We know and we have the data before us that the vaccine rate for routine childhood diseases has declined in Georgia," said Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat. “We know that discussions like this do erode public faith in vaccines.”
The measure bars state agencies, local governments, schools and colleges from requiring proof of vaccination. Because governments and schools can’t require proof, they can’t enforce mandates.
Jones rebutted many Democrats' arguments with a litany of complaints that focused on how the federal government handled COVID-19. He also argued Democrats undermined public trust when they voiced doubts about vaccine development under President Donald Trump.
The state Department of Public Health declined to state a position on the bill, saying it doesn't comment on pending legislation.
The Georgia chapters of both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians oppose the measure.
The measure excludes health care facilities that are subject to federal mandates for their employees to get vaccinated to continue receiving federal payments.
Medical experts agree COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and even with millions getting the shots, confirmed reports of deaths caused by vaccination are extremely rare.
More than 1.1 million people in the country have died from COVID-19 since 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 42,000 people in Georgia have died from the virus.
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