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Idaho lawmakers look for ways to nullify vaccine mandates

| September 24, 2021 7:00 AM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho should adopt a health policy that would make vaccine status a private medical record that employees could refuse to make available to employers as a way to thwart President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate, an attorney told lawmakers Wednesday.

Christ Troupis told the Committee on Federalism that such a law would insulate employers from potential federal penalties involving COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

"An employee cannot be forced by his employer on condition of losing his job or her job to waive his or her right not to disclose their vaccination status," Troupis said. How could employers "be fined for having unvaccinated employees if they can't ask whether they're vaccinated or not?"

That was one of the ideas the committee that deals with state sovereignty issues heard during the full-day hearing that included public testimony, with most speakers testifying against the mandates. The committee took no action, but plans to meet again Tuesday.

The committee is looking for potential legislation that could draw enough support among lawmakers to reconvene the Legislature before it meets for its regular session in January. The committee had been scheduled to meet next week but bumped up the meeting after Biden announced the vaccine mandates earlier this month.

Many Idaho Republican lawmakers are angry with the requirements, and some want the Idaho House and Senate to reconvene immediately to outlaw such mandates.

But so far, lawmakers haven't been able to coalesce around a specific piece of legislation that House and Senate leaders say is needed to call lawmakers back to Boise.

The sweeping vaccine mandates affect 100 million Americans, requiring that employers with more than 100 workers require employees to be vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus.

Workers at health facilities who receive federal Medicare or Medicaid will have to be fully vaccinated, affecting more than 17 million health care workers, the White House said.

The committee on Wednesday looked at potentially sidestepping that requirement by rejecting money the state receives from the federal government, roughly $2.3 billion involving Medicaid, according to state officials.

Under Biden's requirements, employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government are also required to be vaccinated with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.

The requirement for large companies to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for employees will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation.

However, that rule has not yet been announced, something Idaho Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told lawmakers made legal action premature. Gov. Brad Little, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder, all Republicans, in a letter last week to Biden threatened legal action if Biden follows through with a rule.

The committee heard a fair amount of testimony that didn't appear to be accurate, including from Republican Rep. Ron Mendive. He's not a committee member but testified as a member of the public.

"If you look at the mortality rate from 2019 and then 2020, it was down in 2020 from what it was in 2019," he said, talking about worldwide deaths. "We've been told that this virus was so dangerous, so fatal, and yet less people died than died the year before. So that leads me to think that maybe it's not what we were told it was, which is really disturbing."

He didn't cite any sources, and it's not clear what information he was using. In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a report earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed total U.S. deaths last year beyond 3.3 million, the nation's highest annual death toll.

The coronavirus caused approximately 375,000 deaths, and was the third leading cause of death in 2020, after heart disease and cancer. COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. now top 680,000 since the start of the pandemic, with more than 1,900 new deaths a day currently.

All of Idaho is currently under crisis standards of care because of mainly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients filling hospitals as a result of the state's low vaccination rate combined with the more contagious delta variant. The crisis standards allow healthcare workers to ration who gets care in order to save the most lives.

According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, more than 245,000 Idaho residents have been sickened with COVID-19, and more than 2,600 have died.