By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – For the 3.4 million Hoosiers who have received the two or three COVID-19 vaccinations, the proposed HB1001 unveiled by House Majority Leader Matt Lehman on Monday will have little impact, unless the omicron variant turns into a microbe monster.

Fully vaccinated Hoosiers are pretty much going about their business, attending Colt and Big Ten games, going to restaurants and bars, enjoying holiday festivities with friends and families. If there’s a breakthrough COVID infection, the risk is on par with a case of the flu or a bad cold. There are now Lilly antibody treatments available for these breakthrough cases that pretty much prevent hospitalization.

HB1001 is designed to protect federal funding for SNAP and Medicaid and maintain voluntary state vaccine clinics. Or as Lehman put it on Monday, “This proposal covers the three items the executive branch asked for as a condition for lifting the state of emergency, while also strengthening the rights of individual workers throughout Indiana.”

But the other key thrust is for the 50% who have opted not to vaccinate.

“What we’re really trying to find here is a balance between the business’s rights to manage their affairs,” Lehman said. “But then we also have an issue of the rights of the individual.”

It comes as the Indiana State Department of Health on Wednesday reported 6,164 new cases of COVID. The last time the case count was so high was Jan. 8, when 6,199 cases were reported. The department also reported 63 more deaths from COVID, coming on the heels of 117 reported deaths the previous day.

According to the filed HB1001, which has 56 co-sponsors, the bill would:

Provide that an employer may not impose a requirement that employees receive an immunization against COVID-19 unless the employer provides individual exemptions that allow an employee to opt out of the requirement on the basis of medical reasons or religious reasons.

Require an employer to provide employees with an option to submit to testing for the presence of COVID-19 not more than once a week at no cost to the employee in lieu of receiving an immunization against COVID-19.
 
Provide that an employer may not require an employee who has tested positive for and recovered from COVID-19 to receive an immunization against COVID-19 for the six-month period following the employee’s date of recovery.

Provide that an employer may not take an adverse employment action against an employee because the employee has requested or used an exemption from an employer’s COVID-19 immunization requirement.

The Indiana Republican Party was once the keeper and defender of business. But, following the lead of U.S. Rep. Jim Banks in Congress, they are now targeting corporations, opting for individual donations as opposed to PAC contributions. “We are now the party supported by most working class voters,” Banks observed in a memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy earlier this year. “The vast majority of the Republican Conference doesn’t want to return to a GOP-era that neglects working class voters; House Republicans need to consciously promote policies that appeal to working class voters.”

Rank-and-file House members, facing their first election with new districts and fearing primary challengers along with hostile and demonstrative constituents who have opted against vaccinating at Third House meetings, pressed House leadership to defend “individual freedom.”

Rapidly vanishing within the majority party is the Judeo/Christian ethic of doing what’s best for your family, friends, coworkers and society, which is to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your community. As Rep. Lehman acknowledged, this is a collision between the protection of the greater community and “individual freedom.”

At the Nov. 23 hearing, a suspended Ascension St. Vincent Health nurse testified, “I actually hope I get COVID. I do. I want the immunity.”

In the hours after the Nov. 23 joint Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee hearing, it became clear that the rank and file have chosen to ignore medical expertise that widely recommends vaccination as the quickest strategy to end the pandemic, and instead is following the radicalized wing of the party that has moved toward its center. While there were enough House votes to suspend rules and move the legislation in one day, it was the Senate that put the brakes on, with multiple sources telling Howey Politics Indiana there weren’t enough votes for passage.

“Due to the urgency of these matters, a plan was in place to reconvene the legislature Monday, Nov. 29, to address these issues in a single day if consensus on action items existed,” said Senate President Bray. “The ongoing complexities of the issues raised and the potential unintended consequences, the logistics of moving legislation to the floor during a time when the General Assembly is not typically in session, and the need for the public and members of the General Assembly to fully vet the legislation have led to the conclusion that the efforts to gather input and better solutions should continue until the legislature reconvenes in January. These matters will be taken up in earnest at the outset of the coming legislative session.”

On Nov. 23, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Manufacturers Association and the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association joined the Indiana Hospital Association and the Indiana Medical Association in opposing what was then just a preliminary draft.

“Employers are getting squeezed from both directions,” said Chamber President Kevin Brinegar. “It significantly discourages employers from requiring vaccinations, which in our view is contrary to what the state of Indiana has been doing for months and months, spending millions of dollars to encourage people to get vaccinated and showing them the efficacy of that.”

Added IMA President Brian Burton, “The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing in Indiana and across the world, with infection rates again on the rise and new variants emerging. Manufacturers are best-equipped to make their own decisions regarding workplace vaccination policies, and those decisions should be made independent of unnecessary government intervention.”

Dr. Stephen Tharp with the Indiana Medical Association explained, “We are concerned that this legislation which seeks to disincentivize vaccinations will result in the prolongation of COVID-19. Prolonging the pandemic would be harmful to our health care system, and all parts of our society.”

Indiana Democrats opted to portray the GOP as “Bad for Business, Bad for Workers.” On Monday, the party announced it will highlight the Republicans’ “troubling record that has stunted the economic opportunity for the state, underpaid and undervalued Hoosier workers, and produced unnecessary culture wars that have divided communities across Indiana.” It cited HB1001 that would “make Indiana’s businesses pay for COVID-19 testing for its workers, a reversal from federal guidelines.”

“Indiana Republicans have attacked businesses, made Hoosiers work more for less money, created unnecessary culture wars against Indiana’s cities, defunded Indiana’s public schools and law enforcement, and considered investments like broadband, roads, bridges, and clean water as ‘socialism’. This partisanship is as extreme as it can get, and it’s an agenda that has to stop,” said Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl. “Indiana Democrats have seen enough and we’re ready to go on offense to defend the future that’s being created for Hoosier families through the American Rescue Plan and the Jobs Act. Indiana Republicans are simply bad for business and workers, and until they are held accountable, they will diminish the real potential of the Hoosier State.” 

Anti-vax movement gears up

This anti-vaccine movement ignited by the COVID pandemic is essentially the Indiana Republican Party moving into space that was once totally and controversially that of former U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, who waged a mostly fringe campaign against childhood disease vaccination. The emerging reality is that opposition to the COVID vaccine is likely just the beginning of a movement that will seek to end MMR mandates needed for children to attend K-12 schools, and even university vaccine programs.

According to FiveThirtyEight, in a 2013 YouGov poll, 11% of Democrats, 14% of independents and 9% of Republicans said they believe vaccines cause autism. But in a 2017 YouGov poll, 19% of Democrats, 31% of independents and 39% of Republicans said it was “definitely” or “probably” true that vaccines cause autism. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found 9% of Democrats, 10% of independents and 5% of Republicans thought the MMR vaccine was unsafe. And in a 2015 CBS poll, when asked whether parents should be required to vaccinate their kids or should be able to decide for themselves, 38% of Republicans, 34% of independents and 23% of Democrats said parents should be able to make their own choice.

“I’m worried that the politicization could threaten the social consensus [currently] in favor of vaccination,” Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, told FiveThirtyEight. “If we start to see attitudes toward vaccines become closely linked to partisanship and ideology, we could see a polarization over vaccination that would threaten herd immunity on a whole series of diseases over time.”  

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends routine vaccination against 16 diseases from birth through age 18.

As one influential Republican told HPI recently, the current vaccination regimen was formulated following Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in the 1950s. A parent’s greatest fear was a child contracting polio and ending up in an iron lung or wheelchair. Now there is a sizable bloc that has equated the need to vaccinate or not as one of personal freedom.
 
Monday’s special session scrubbed

It was a horrified Purdue Prof. C.A. Waldo who in 1897 learned of a bill by State Rep. Taylor I. Record to redefine the mathematical concept of “pi”, rushing to quell what would have been a national embarrassment. Memories of that episode resurfaced after Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Rodric Bray called off a special session originally scheduled for Monday to “end the pandemic.”

NWI Times’ Dan Carden: “Historians of the COVID-19 pandemic may look back on last week in Indiana, when some Republican state lawmakers believed they could simply declare an end to the public health emergency, with amusement at their ignorance, or perhaps, their innocence. That’s because, once again, the coronavirus is proving that even if Hoosiers are sick and tired of COVID-19, the virus isn’t done making Hoosiers sick.” 

IndyStar’s James Briggs: “The Drumstick Dash is back and the political turkey trot is canceled. While you were preparing for Thanksgiving, and maybe for a run in Broad Ripple, the Indiana General Assembly’s gobbledygook plot to set a new speed record for bad policymaking ended in a sloppy, embarrassing fiasco. We might as well call it what it is: Republicans were effectively planning to ban employer vaccine mandates. Indiana is already fighting the Biden administration’s effort to force employers into vaccine mandates. But some Statehouse Republicans want to go further and take the choice away from businesses.”

On Friday, the “omicron” variant of COVID-19 was officially recognized by the World Health Organization, the Dow reacting by falling nearly 1,000 points, and Americans girded for yet another “not again!” episode of this pandemic where vaccination is readily available (and free!) but 50% of Hoosiers and 30% of Americans are rejecting.

How bad could omicron be?


National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins on Fox News Sunday: “If you’ve raised antibodies against [COVID-19] from previously being infected or from being vaccinated, the question is, will those antibodies still stick to this version of the spike protein, or will they evade that protection? We need to find that out, to be honest, though that’s gonna take two, three weeks in both laboratory and field studies to figure out the answer.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci: “When you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here.” On Wednesday, the CDC said the first U.S. case occurred in California from a person who recently returned from South Africa.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb: “The question here is going to be whether or not a fully boosted individual, someone who’s had three doses of vaccine has good protection against this variant right now.” Dr. Michael Osterholm: “This is a stay-tuned moment. There a lot left to be learned.”

As statewide hospitalizations surge, the Indiana Hospital Association, Indiana State Medical Association, and Indiana State Nurses Association urged Hoosiers to vaccinate: “COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising dramatically in Indiana, increasing 66% over the past three weeks and approaching 75% of the peak of the pandemic Indiana faced last November. In addition to the rapid increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, in which the vast majority are unvaccinated, hospitals are caring for more critically ill patients than ever before. Clinical data indicates that patients have more complex conditions than before the pandemic and have longer lengths of stay. In addition, emergency room visits are on the rise, which puts further strain on the system. Should the current trends continue, everyone in need of health care could be impacted. We urge all Hoosiers who have not yet received a vaccine or who are eligible to get a booster to do so before winter arrives to ensure a hospital bed is available for all in need. The COVID-19 vaccine has proven to be safe and effective at reducing hospitalizations and death and the best way to reduce your risk of serious illness and protect your friends and family is to get vaccinated before gathering for the holidays.”

Holcomb extends public health emergency


The Indiana governor’s office acknowledged Wednesday that the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency will likely extend into the new year after a failed attempt by legislators to quickly approve steps the governor sought to let the declaration expire. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the 21st monthlong extension of the public health emergency he first issued in March 2020 along with an executive order continuing a handful of administrative actions but no business or crowd restrictions. Both orders are in effect until Jan. 1. Holcomb’s emergency order said about 95% of recent COVID-19 hospitalizations and 75% of deaths in the state involved unvaccinated people and stated that “the virus remains a threat to the health, safety and welfare of all residents of Indiana.”

Indiana has seen a roughly 80% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past three weeks, with about one-quarter of those patients being treated in intensive care units, according to tracking by the Indiana Department of Health. The state is averaging about 20 COVID-19 deaths a day. Health experts have argued now is not the time to end the state’s public health emergency as Indiana and other Midwestern states have seen a new surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations even before identification of the omicron variant last week sparked new worldwide concerns. Indiana has the nation’s 11th lowest rate for a fully vaccinated population at 50.6%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Biden to unveil winter strategy

President Joe Biden is set to kick off a more urgent campaign for Americans to get COVID-19 booster shots Thursday as he unveils his winter plans for combating the coronavirus and its omicron variant with enhanced availability of shots and vaccines but without major new restrictions (AP). The plan includes a requirement for private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and a tightening of testing requirements for people entering the U.S. regardless of their vaccination status. But as some other nations close their borders or reimpose lockdowns, officials said Biden was not moving to impose additional restrictions beyond his recommendation that Americans wear masks indoors in public settings. Biden said Wednesday that the forthcoming strategy, to be unveiled during a speech at the National Institutes of Health, would fight the virus “not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.” The White House released details of Biden’s plan early Thursday, in advance of the speech.