Idaho vaccination laws already permissive, even before governor’s order

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

While Idahoans have had significant discussion about whether the COVID-19 vaccine would become mandatory, it’s worth note that the state has never mandated a vaccine for adults.

There are rules around childhood vaccines for children attending school, but even those have wide-ranging exemptions. 

Gov. Brad Little signed an executive order Wednesday banning so-called vaccine passports at government entities in Idaho. Those entities would not be able to require proof of vaccination for residents to use and access public services.

The governor has repeatedly said that he would not make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory. 

The term “vaccine passport” refers to proof of vaccination, not just international travel. 

“To the best of our knowledge, Idaho has never mandated a vaccine for adults,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr said Thursday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has supported proof of vaccination and the state has created a cell phone app with information about whether a person has been vaccinated. The app is free and can be used as proof of vaccination and proof of a negative COVID-19 test, should a business require that proof.

On April 6, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said there will not be a federal mandate for vaccinations or proof of vaccination.

Little has repeatedly encouraged all Idahoans age 16 and older to get vaccinated, but maintains it should be a personal choice, not a mandate. 

Little joins at least three other governors — those in Texas, Florida, and Utah — in banning mandatory vaccine passports. 

Private employers do have the right to mandate that employees get vaccinated. 

Idaho law

Idaho Code 39-4801 does require pre-school through 12th grade students be vaccinated before attending school, but available exemptions are broad. Idaho Code 39-4802 outlines those exemptions. Under the law a parent or guardian may sign a statement objecting to the vaccine “on religious or other grounds” and the child does not need to be vaccinated. The current law has been in place since 1979, long before the coronavirus pandemic.

HB 298, a bill pitched by lawmakers this year, would expand that statute, stating “School officials shall describe the exemptions provided in this section and provide a citation to this section in any communication to parents and guardians regarding immunization.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, passed the House of Representatives in a 59-10 vote. The only Republican to vote against the bill was Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, who is a retired physician.

The bill made it out of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday and now goes before the full Senate.

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said in committee that the bill was only requiring school districts to inform parents that the exemptions exist. She said she did not believe it would add a burden to districts. 

“This is just about parental notification,” Den Hartog said.

Nurse practitioner Brad Bigford testified in opposition of the bill, saying he believed the bill could result in a lower immunization rate among children. 

Bigford said he supported parents’ choice to make informed decisions, but lower immunization rates jeopardize the health and education of students who cannot be vaccinated, such as a student with cancer.

In testimony Thursday, Rep. DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, said in her experience many parents are unaware that the exemptions on vaccinations exist. 

“It’s very simple,” she said. “Parents have a right to know.”

For now, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination has only been approved for children ages 16 and 17. The other COVID-19 vaccines in use are only approved for people age 18 and older.

House Concurrent Resolution 14, opposing mandatory vaccinations, made it through the House in a unanimous vote and is on its way to the Senate. HCR14 states that it would oppose any law that forced immunizations, even in times of emergency. 

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