After a marathon eight-hour hearing, a House panel rejected a GOP bill seeking to ban employers in Colorado from mandating a COVID-19 vaccine.
Rep. Kim Ransom, a Littleton Republican who is sponsoring House Bill 21-1191 along with Rep. Tonya Van Beber of Eaton, pitched her legislation as an effort “to address equity under the law and anti-discrimination.”
“Federal and Colorado state governments have stated they currently will not impose vaccination mandates or certificates, however, if HB 1191 does not pass, we therefore allow and even encourage private business to implement and enforce such mandates," Ransom said. "We would be, in essence, voting for discrimination.”
Van Beber, meanwhile, indicated the bill was not an effort to question the efficacy of vaccines, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic or promote anti-vaccine sentiments. Instead, she couched the bill as a matter of law.
“Our rights and access are granted by the constitution; they are not granted to us by receiving a medical procedure,” she said. “Anything less really doesn't honor equity, inclusivity and diversity.”
Those arguments drew strong opposition in nearly three consecutive hours of testimony from a range of doctors, public health officials, business leaders and concerned citizens.
Among those opposed to the bill was Dr. Kweku Hazel, a surgical fellow at UCHealth's University of Colorado Hospital and member of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce. He said it moved the state further away from its goals of overcoming the pandemic by "stoking fears, spreading dangerous misinformation and preventing the use of existing public health tools for limiting the spread of the disease."
"This bill is not a form of discrimination protection, but instead uses the arguments of discrimination to further an anti-vaccine agenda," Hazel said. "We urge you not to allow the anti-vaccination community to undermine these efforts and ask you to stay dedicated to the science and input from our medical community and public health experts."
Those comments were echoed by several others , some of whom represented the Vaccine Equity Taskforce as well as the state Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians, the Colorado Pharmacists Society, the Colorado Association of School Nurses and the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials. The Colorado Hospital Association, Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and Healthier Colorado also testified against the bill.
"The question before us is a fundamental one of whether the interests of the individual outweigh the interests and health of the community on whole," said Dr. Raymond Goodrich, the executive director of Colorado State University's Infectious Disease Research Center.
A range of business groups also expressed opposition to the bill. They noted while they had not heard from businesses that were interested in mandating vaccines, they wanted to allow their members to have as many tools as they felt necessary to keep their customers and employees safe.
"Employers are not and should not be forced to accommodate secular or unscientific beliefs about vaccines," said Lauren Masias, director of the Colorado Competitive Council.
Representatives from the South Metro Denver Chamber and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce also testified against the bill, along with the Colorado Municipal League and Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter.
Testimony from supporters, who were given three hours of their own, ranged from those who advocated for the right not to be vaccinated to those who recited debunked conspiracy theories about vaccines in general and the COVID-19 vaccine in particular. Others claimed the state either was already mandating vaccines, or was about to.
Several witnesses spoke about vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. Theo Wilson of Denver told the committee that “it is not up to the African American community to overcome the hesitancy that has been put into us by 400 years of doctors failing to do no harm.”
Wilson said his community is doing its best to fight COVID-19 because they have been the most affected by it.
“But in our push to make sure that we are protected from this, we cannot [give up] some very sacred rights," he said. "And what bothers me is that the people who are saying that they're fighting for freedom are the very ones trying to take the freedom away from a son of a slave to choose what he does with his own body.”
Witnesses claimed they were not anti-vaccine; even some who had been vaccinated advocated for the freedom to make the choice.
Bishop Jerry Dimmer, president of the Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, recounted that he is vaccinated but his wife has chosen not to take the vaccine. Both of them researched the vaccine and came to different conclusions, he explained.
“It’s about making sure that we preserve the right to choose,” he said.
Several witnesses with medical backgrounds cited the federal VAERS system, which takes reports on vaccines from anyone who claims injury from a vaccine without having to provide any actual proof.
The CDC website says healthcare providers, vaccine manufacturers, and the public can submit reports to VAERS.
“While very important in monitoring vaccine safety, VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness... . Reports may include incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental and unverified information,” the site states.
To date, the CDC has not verified any deaths from a COVID-19 vaccine.
Several colleges and universities in Colorado are mandating that their students, faculty and staff be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall, which drew criticism from bill supporters.
Attorney Gabrielle Palmer called that requirement "totally inappropriate, especially under an emergency-use authorization" that the vaccines have been granted by the Food and Drug Administration.
"This is not an FDA-approved vaccine," she said.
She also cited the state Democratic party's website and its platform, which she said points out the party would protect civil rights.
"Does 'my body, my choice' apply to reproductive choice or does it also apply to decisions that I make in connection with my doctor?" she asked.
As to the effect on employment, if this bill passes, "it will ensure that the millions of Coloradans like myself who have refused the vaccine have a right to work despite their private medical decisions."
Ultimately, the six hours of witness testimony, an amendment to remove health care workers and facilities from the bill's provisions and a last-ditch attempt to transfer the bill to the House Judiciary Committee did little to move the panel out of the positions they held prior to entering the hearing room.
Democrats pointed to the testimony from doctors, public health officials and business groups that testified in declaring their opposition to the bill.
"We're still in the middle of a pandemic and people are still dying; I'm not sure how we don't focus on health when that's happening," said Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat and registered nurse. "We should be doing all that we can to save lives and to end this pandemic. This bill doesn't do that."
Rep. David Ortiz, D-Littleton, also pointed to the 1905 Jacobson v. Massachusetts federal Supreme Court decision upholding states' authority to enforce mandatory vaccination laws.
The committee's GOP members, meanwhile, promoted testimony from those who spoke in support of the bill and knocked the comments from the opposition.
"Some testimony that was offered made some wild claims, in my opinion, about it being an anti-vax bill, and that there is information that was completely inaccurate, and that it wasn't an anti-discrimination bill, and all these other types of things," said Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, R-Falcon. "For a while there, I felt like I was in Alice's Wonderland. I wasn't sure if we'd all even read the same bill."
Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, warned that opposition to the bill would "open the floodgates to allow private entities to randomly discriminate against unvaccinated individuals."
Despite pleas from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to avoid a party-line vote, members of the committee went to their political corners to first reject the passage of the bill and then to postpone it indefinitely.