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State lawmakers hear testimony on bill seeking to ban COVID vaccination mandates

Clayton Quint of Hodgdon, Maine, who supports healthcare workers who choose not to be vaccinated, stands outside the State House, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Clayton Quint of Hodgdon, Maine, who supports healthcare workers who choose not to be vaccinated, stands outside the State House, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

The contentious national debate over vaccine mandates continued in Maine Tuesday as state lawmakers heard testimony on a Republican-led bill that seeks to outlaw what it calls compulsory or coercive vaccination against COVID-19.

The five-hour hearing was a microcosm of a debate that's raged ever since the state began requiring COVID vaccinations for health care workers, joining mandates for measles, mumps, chicken pox, hepatitis and the flu.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has repeatedly defended the policy and so have hospitals and health care organizations that say it protects patients and staff from serious illness or death.

But the issue has been drawn into a much larger battle that's pit the public health community and hospitals against an alliance of people who oppose such requirements and anti-vaccine activists, who have used the debate to spread misinformation about the COVID vaccines.

The original draft of the bill, for example, sought to halt COVID vaccine mandates until the vaccines are studied for adverse effects on fertility.

Sara Calder of MaineHealth, which provides care across multiple locations across the state, noted that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics have urged pregnant women to get vaccinated against COVID because they're at increased risk of severe infection.

"There's no evidence that shows any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men and the COVID-19 vaccines are not shown to increase risk of pre-term birth or still birth," Calder said.

The bill's sponsor, Tracy Quint, a Republican from Hodgdon, struck the fertility reference shortly before the public hearing.

She also removed a five-year moratorium on COVID vaccination mandates and replaced it with an outright ban on vaccine mandates without informed consent.

"As elected officials we are responsible for ensuring that all Mainers have the right to provide or withhold consent for any medical treatment or procedure," she said. "This principle is a bedrock of medical care and encompasses all procedures, including vaccination."

Supporters of the vaccine mandate for health care workers have described it as a condition of employment and not a violation of informed consent, which is a patient's right to consult a physician before undergoing a medical treatment or procedure.

Quint was among the more than 50 people who verbally testified in favor of the bill, while another 240 or so provided written testimony.

Several supporters said they were health workers who lost their jobs because they refused to get vaccinated against COVID.

The proposal is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but it will likely fuel the ongoing political debate, which Republicans hope to use in denying Mills a second term.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.