Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, center, facing camera, previously declined to confirm he was subpoenaed but appeared in court to testify before a grand jury on Monday. (Photo: John Partipilo)
State Rep. Jason Zachary opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates, yet he is promoting legislation that meshes with a federal mandate guaranteeing health-care workers can opt out of those vaccines.
Critics of House Bill 1867 say the measure could wind up making Tennessee one of the only states in the nation to codify the federal requirement for nurses, doctors and other health-care personnel.
Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, railed against the federal government Tuesday in a House Civil Justice Subcommittee meeting, saying repeatedly the feds have “failed” the nation over the last 22 months in regard to the pandemic. He didn’t explain his comment but later noted that the Centers for Disease Control last fall said that the vaccine doesn’t stop the transmission of COVID-19 and then in January admitted that natural immunity is six times more effective than the vaccine.
The CDC doesn’t promise 100% effectiveness, but it says vaccinations help protect people from severe sickness and illness, as well as people around them, and are effective at preventing COVID-19, especially severe disease, hospitalization and death.
Studies also show the risk of testing positive is four times higher for unvaccinated adults and the risk of dying from COVID-19 is 15 times higher for adults who don’t take the vaccine, according to CDC studies. The rates are even higher when comparing the unvaccinated to those with a booster shot.
The subcommittee amended Zachary’s bill Tuesday and approved it on a voice vote after a lengthy debate that might have led to more questions than answers, because it could lead to a state law mirroring a federal rule that Republican legislators don’t favor.
Zachary’s legislation requires employers that mandate COVID-19 vaccinations to grant exemptions to any employee who provides a medical reason from a doctor or a religious reason. It also specifies that a doctor providing the statement is immune from civil liability and protected from disciplinary action by a health-related board.
The Tennessee Hospital Association supports the amendment to Zachary’s bill.
“It maintains the ability of hospitals to continue to comply with the CMS vaccine mandate and avoid any risk to federal funding while still supporting the goals of lawmakers on the issue,” Tennessee Hospital Association spokeswoman Andrea Ewin Turner said in a statement.
Under the Biden Administration rules, health-care workers are required to get the vaccine or undergo testing unless they have religious objections or can obtain a medical exemption. In Tennessee, however, “numerous” hospitals are firing workers who don’t want to take the vaccine, denying their religious and medical exemptions, Zachary said, leaving hospitals without enough personnel to treat patients. He identified St. Thomas hospitals, which are part of the Ascension network, as some of the offenders.
A St. Thomas spokesperson could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
But Vanderbilt University Medical Center spokesman Matt Scanlan said the hospital had not had any problems with claims being filed against it. Vanderbilt Hospital was one of the first facilities to undertake an aggressive vaccination program for employees.
Scanlan noted hospitals don’t want to be put in the position of having to release employees.
Isn’t this kind of a self-defeating prophecy, that you’re trying to go further than the federal rule itself and possibly creating more health-care shortages?
– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville
Nevertheless, Zachary claimed he had spoken with hospital officials who can’t keep enough staff to care for patients.
“We’ve moved beyond a crisis point because the health-care field has been depleted and significantly overworked,” Zachary said. “We are entering a critical phase where we may not have enough people to provide quality care for Tennesseans.”
Emergency rooms have nine-hour waits because of low staffing, Zachary said. He added he finds it “completely unacceptable” that some health-care workers are unemployed because they don’t want to take the vaccine.
In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services vaccine mandate to take effect. The rule is now being considered by two lower federal courts, where it could be found illegal.
That ruling coincided with a 6-3 Supreme Court decision that blocked President Joe Biden’s OSHA mandate for companies with more than 100 employees to require vaccines or testing.
“The federal court should not be stepping in, forcing them to make that decision,” Zachary said.
Zachary drew support from fellow Republicans such as Rep. Bruce Griffey of Paris who argued that the vaccine is different from flu shots and mumps, measles and rubella vaccinations and should not be required at all. He is carrying legislation making it a misdemeanor to require anyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think it is clear to everyone at this point … that the American people and Tennesseans have been misled regarding these vaccines and what they’re gonna do. Some might use the term lied to,” Griffey said.
Griffey concurred with Zachary’s point that the vaccine doesn’t stop transmission, even though the CDC claimed the vaccines were 90% effective, or more, when they came out in early 2021.
“That’s complete bull at this point,” Griffey said.
Under questioning from Democratic lawmakers, though, Zachary acknowledged that his bill, if it becomes law, could make Tennessee one of the only states in the nation to codify a federal rule he opposes.
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, asked Zachary why he is targeting COVID-19 vaccines, instead of vaccines for other diseases that have been rendered nearly non-existent.
Clemmons pointed out that the vaccination is “widely recognized” as effective and questioned whether the federal court would be better suited to address the rule already in place rather than to pass a law and create problems for Tennessee employers.
“Isn’t this kind of a self-defeating prophecy, that you’re trying to go further than the federal rule itself and possibly creating more health-care shortages?” Clemmons asked.
Zachary responded that he doesn’t want to wait for the courts to act when the effective date for the CMS rule is Feb. 15. Zachary also argued it is “unprecedented” for the federal government to require a vaccine and that the General Assembly should take action.
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, questioned why the Legislature is taking up the measure when the federal rule already applies. State law also could be used to uphold rights to religious and medical exemptions to a vaccine mandate.
“I don’t have any problem with your bill as long as my hospitals are OK with it. What are we doing differently in your bill than the feds are doing? It’s the same language,” Parkinson asked.
Zachary contended once again that Tennessee hospitals are denying exemptions for no reason.
But Parkinson countered, pointing out, “We’re basically saying we’re not gonna let the federal government say it. We’re gonna say it ourselves. It’s the same language.”
He noted it will serve as an “educational tool” for health-care providers to back up the federal rule.
Zachary responded that he could never really agree with Parkinson.
“But what I am gonna say is we are certainly reinforcing federal rule and federal law,” Zachary said.
Republican Rep. Bob Ramsey, who backed the amendment to the bill, pointed out that the Department of Health has 90 inspectors who verify health-care facility compliance for the federal government. Otherwise, they could lose federal funding totalling $904 billion for hospitals alone.
Nothing in the legislation has additional requirements for health-care facilities beyond the federal rules. But Zachary said afterward his legislation requires facilities to grant exemptions from COVID-19 vaccinations instead of allowing them to make exemptions.
Clemmons said later, though, he is “perplexed” by the legislation. The Supreme Court lifted injunctions on the vaccine mandate put in place at the lower court level, but those courts could block the rule, leaving Tennessee with a new law on the books, one that will be unpopular among Republicans.
“I think this is more about political point scoring and … Republicans trying to pump themselves up and look holier than thou than it is about really addressing a problem that doesn’t exist,” Clemmons said.
Clemmons noted he had not heard about St. Thomas hospitals firing employees for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine in spite of religious and medical exemptions. He said he has two Ascension hospitals in his Nashville district.
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