By SHERMAN SMITH
TOPEKA — Sen. Mark Steffen pushed colleagues Thursday to support his legislation banning employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, saying lawmakers should reject the idea that society is more important than the individual.
Senate Bill 213 would prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, and would impose a $1,000 fine for employers who violate the restriction. Steffen said this would preserve freedom of choice for individuals and relieve employers from the liability of imposing a medical procedure on an unwilling worker.
The mask-averse Republican from Hutchinson is a board-certified anesthesiologist who specializes in interventional pain management, and he repeatedly reminded senators on the Commerce Committee that he is a medical doctor.
The debate pitted the doctor senator against a doctor representative, and featured conflicting insight from an herbal entrepreneur, the Kansas Chamber, business attorneys, a pediatrician and a bacterial meningitis survivor. The bill’s maskless proponents balked at the possibility of having an experimental drug injected into their body without their consent, while opponents who wore masks or testified by remote video relished the value of being protected from a deadly contagion.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines late last year, after the drug companies showed they were safe and 95% effective. A third vaccine, from Johnson and Johnson, could get approval in the coming days.
Still, Steffen said, it is too soon to know what long-term safety risks might be associated with the vaccines, which also rely on new RNA technology never before used in humans.
“They call it a novel virus — it’s a novel vaccination,” Steffen said. “We need to be very very cognizant of that. Watch as the opponents come up and talk about taking care of a society and their willingness to sacrifice individuals in the process. That’s not their decision to make. It’s our decision as an individual.”
Rep. John Eplee, a Republican physician from Atchison, said Steffen’s argument pales in comparison to the 44 million doses of vaccines that have already been administered without serious complications.
Medical providers and other employers already mandate vaccinations for influenza and other illnesses, Eplee told the committee, and courts have upheld those mandates. He said if Steffen’s bill passes, the state will expend resources in a losing legal battle.
“I’m really questioning why would we do that. It really concerns me,” Eplee said. “And why would government in this case pre-empt business decisions?”
Connie Newcome said Senate Bill 213 is the employee-employer version of “value them both,” the name given to the anti-abortion constitutional amendment passed earlier this year.
“The employer is free to operate the business honoring employees as thinking, intelligent humans rather than an owner of their bodies,” Newcome said. “Employees are not slaves.”
Newcome, who owns Herb House Natural Medicine in Inman, is the founder of Kansans for Health Freedom. She said most employers are not qualified to recommend, let alone require, a medical procedure.
Doctors try to bully people into taking vaccines, Newcome said.
“Opponents of this bill do believe in coercion, bribery, discrimination and mandates,” she said, and they should have to answer some questions: “Why the employer has the right to own another person’s body, how this preserves personal liberty and bodily autonomy, how the employer even knows what is best for each person, and who they deem should be liable for vaccine injury and death.”
Michelle Suter, a Johnson County business attorney, said pharmaceutical companies have an obligation to shareholders — not the health of Kansans.
By passing this law, she said, businesses can avoid conflict about how the experimental drug will turn out.
“Employers are desperate for a bright line, a signal on what they can do and what they don’t have to do,” Suter said. “They are panicking, they’re fearful and they’re trying to stay alive.”
Steffen said a large part of the population has a small risk of “adverse outcome” from contracting COVID-19. He asserted it was more likely the vaccine would fail to provide immunity than it was to “have a problem from catching the virus.”
“Our country is based on individual rights, and we’re crossing the line with these vaccinations, particularly under these circumstances,” Steffen said.
Gretchen Homan, president-elect of the Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she opposes Steffen’s bill because she prioritizes the health and safety of children.
“Because of the pandemic, our children have and for many years to come will continue to pay the price for missing out on foundational life experiences because adults were seriously affected by COVID-19,” she said.
Homan said her strong opinion on the matter is shaped by being exposed to infectious disease through her day-to-day work. She wants her employer to have the authority to protect her from contracting a contagious disease.
She referenced the wisdom of TV personality Mister Rogers, who said in times of trouble, look for the helpers.
“Please, in this time of decision, look to those who are motivated to help, who offer facts, and who have dedicated their careers to help promote healthy lives for Kansas,” Homan said.
Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, said government should not have a role in business decisions about mandating vaccinations.
He said he wasn’t aware of any businesses currently mandating the COVID-19 vaccines, but some employers are offering incentives for workers who agree to be inoculated.
“We strongly believe in the ability for employers to make their determinations for what’s best for their company and their customers,” Stafford said.
Eplee referenced Newcome’s remarks about doctors bullying patients into taking vaccines as he talked about his work as a family physician at Amberwell Health hospital in Atchison.
“I learn new things about myself all the time,” he said. “Being called a bully is something new in my wheelhouse, but I’ll wear that for this moment, for this hearing.”
Andy Marso, who survived bacterial meningitis as a student at the University of Kansas in 2004, questioned the timing by lawmakers for considering Steffen’s bill.
More than a half-million Americans and nearly 5,000 Kansans have died from the contagious disease in the past 12 months. Multiple vaccines now reduce the risk of dying from COVID-19 to essentially 0%, Marso said.
“And yet this body’s reaction is, ‘Well, we better explore ways to make it harder for businesses to leverage these tools to protect their workforce and customers.’ That’s a strange reaction, practically speaking,” Marso said.
Marso’s views are shaped by his 2004 illness, which could have been prevented with a vaccine. He awoke from a three-week coma to learn an infection is his bloodstream had caused tissue damage equal to third-degree burns over 30% of his body. His toes and most of his fingers were amputated. His medical bills amounted to $1.5 million.
At the close of the 90-minute hearing, Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, demanded to know what Marso does for a living. Marso indicated he wasn’t testifying on behalf of his employer, but Tyson persisted with her inquiry. Marso said he is an editor for a medical journal published by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Tyson then delivered a question inspired by Marso’s testimony.
“We have a president who has just opened the borders, and these people are not necessarily vaccinated coming into the United States,” Tyson said. “And here we’re requiring employees, citizens of the United States, to be vaccinated while we’re not requiring others. Would you address that please?”
“I mean, I would love to vaccinate everybody that comes into the country,” Marso replied.
Tyson also questioned Marso’s logic of pointing out that employees at restaurants are required to wash their hands.
“Washing your hands and wearing a hairnet are not putting chemicals in your body,” Tyson said.
“You’re putting chemicals on your body,” Marso said.
“OK,” said Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican and committee chairman. “We’re adjourned.”
Sherman Smith has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature.