Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, right, speaks with Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, during a floor debate in the Alaska Senate over vaccine mandates on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Vaccine mandate debate roils Alaska

Gov calls mandate ‘unamerican’ and lawmakers are divided

Debate over COVID-19 vaccine mandates accelerated in the state last Friday, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy calling the Biden administration’s decision to require vaccines for millions of workers “unamerican,” and Alaska state senators are finding themselves deeply divided over the issue.

In a statement, Dunleavy said vaccines were the most effective way to prevent COVID-19, and that most people hospitalized with the virus were unvaccinated people.

“With that said, President Biden’s attempt to force vaccinations is ill-conceived, divisive, and unamerican,” Dunleavy said. “At a time in which we are called to work together, forced medical procedures run counter to our collective sense of fairness and liberty.”

The governor said his administration is aggressively identifying every tool to protect the inherent individual rights of all Alaskans. Dunleavy is not the only Republican politician to bristle at the sweeping mandate.

The Associated Press reported Friday a number of Republican governors denounced the Biden administration’s decision to have certain large employers mandate vaccines in their workplaces. According to AP, the Republican National Committee has also said it will sue the administration over the decision.

Debate over vaccine mandates dominated the day for the Alaska State Senate.

In the Senate, a bill aimed at helping Alaska’s strained health care infrastructure was voted down Friday after senators narrowly passed an amendment banning vaccine mandates in the state. With that language in the amendment, several senators in both parties said they could no longer accept the bill despite having approved of the earlier version introduced from the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

[Lawmakers fast-track bill to aid health care hiring]

The Legislature’s third special session of the year came to an end on Wednesday, Sept. 15, and lawmakers have been trying to rush bills through both bodies in order to complete legislative business.

The session’s original goal of finding long-term fiscal solutions has taken a back-seat to appropriations and an emergency health care bill. Dunleavy has twice amended the call of the session to allow for business other than fiscal policy issues, something that’s been a point of contention for the House minority.

The bill under debate in the Senate Friday originally came from Dunleavy and was meant to provide relief to health care providers, namely hospitals, currently facing a number of issues due to the surging number of COVID-19 cases.

Some lawmakers are calling on Dunleavy to declare a state of emergency over the COVID-19 situation, but Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said that declaration would not allow the governor to do what the state’s health administrators have asked him. Speaking to the Senate Labor and Commerce committee on Tuesday, Crum said the biggest issue facing health care was a staffing shortage and the governor’s bill would make several changes allowing faster hiring of workers.

That bill was quickly moved through committee, but when it arrived on the floor of the Senate, amendments were added some senators said completely undermined the intent of the bill. Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, submitted an amendment preventing businesses, state agencies and municipalities from instituting vaccine mandates.

That amendment passed with Democratic Sens. Scott Kawasaki, Fairbanks, and Bill Weilechowski, Anchorage, joining several Republicans. Reinbold said on the floor the COVID-19 vaccine had been rushed, and had skipped several critical test phases.

The Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine for adults on Aug. 23, and though development of the vaccine was accelerated, there were no testing stages skipped according to a Government Accountability Office report of Operation Warp Speed.

“I do not support employees to be used as lab rats,” Reinbold said. “We’re basically allowing an employer to practice medicine.”

Reinbold has been banned from Alaska Airlines for refusing to follow the airline’s regulations around masking and said employees being threatened with firing for refusing the vaccine was coercion.

But Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said that violated the rights of employers to determine how to best protect their employees and themselves, rights which have been upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

“Employees have the choice to stay employed or to take another job,” Begich said.

Reinbold submitted several other bills relating to vaccine mandates and one that would have required Alaskans to visit a doctor in person before being able to receive telemedicine, a move she said was done to protect Alaska workers from out-of-state competition.

But for some lawmakers, the vaccine mandate amendment changed the nature of the bill.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, called it unfathomable for the Senate to pass the bill as amended.

The final vote came to nine yeas and eight nays, which is not enough for the bill to pass out of the Senate. However, Hoffman gave a notice for vote consideration, meaning he can change his vote but not on the same day. Following the vote Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, recessed the Senate to the call of the chair.

“I believe that there are several amendments that made the legislation step back,” Hoffman said. “This is real life, this is real death that we’re talking about, there is no way that I can be a yes vote on this piece of legislation that takes steps backwards.”

During floor debate, Begich said Alaska’s hospitals were experiencing a surge of cases driven by unvaccinated people, and preventing employers for being able to require vaccines from their employees made it more difficult to combat the virus.

“This is a refusal to acknowledge medical reality,” Begich said. “This bill cannot do what it was designed to do.”

Senators reconvened later Friday evening and passed the bill in a reconsideration vote. It will now go to the House of Representatives.

After the evening session, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, told reporters the re-vote happened after an agreement was made with the Senate president that there will be another opportunity to take those provisions out of the bill. Stevens said the House may remove those elements, or they may be debated again when the bill comes back to the Senate.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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