ATLANTA - Georgia senators voted Tuesday to permanently block schools and most state and local government agencies from requiring people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
It would not apply to health care providers. State Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, the bill’s main sponsor, said this will make a previous version, permanent.
"We have lived for a year under the previous version of this law," said Dolezal. "That law is set to sunset this summer so we just removed the sunset and said that we’re never going to have a day in Georgia where governments refuse services to its constituents based on whether or not they have received a COVID-19 vaccine."
Sen. Dolezal said that when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine at least, the government shouldn’t be able to force anyone to get it, or refuse services to people who are unvaccinated.
"I don’t believe that government should discriminate against citizens based on COVID-19 vaccinations," Dolezal said.
The current one-year ban was part of a broad conservative nationwide backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness, but it would expire on June 30 in Georgia if lawmakers don’t extend it.
"We know that there’s been a movement building in America to demonize vaccinations and do it in the name of individual rights," said Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat.
Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, said the majority is "fundamentally signing on to the anti-vaccination movement" and tying the hands of government if COVID-19 again worsens.
"When we throw bills up on the floor and take votes on them in the General Assembly that result in further undermining the public’s faith in vaccines and in public health measures, I think that poses a danger to all of us in the long run," said Orrock. "It is not wise."
The measure bars state agencies, local governments, schools and colleges from requiring proof of vaccination. But because governments and schools can’t require proof, they can’t enforce mandates.
Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican and medical doctor, argues that because COVID-19 has grown less severe, a mandate isn’t needed.
"The science certainly has evolved, the disease certainly has evolved," Watson said.
Democrats argued that the toll of the illness has declined in part because of vaccines and other public health measures. They warned there’s no guarantee that the virus will stay less lethal.
"This virus is still mutating," said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat.
Dolezal has said he plans a separate bill that would make permanent the existing five-year ban on schools being able to require children to wear masks.
The state Department of Public Health declined to state a position on the bill, saying it doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
The Georgia chapters of both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians oppose the measure, saying it will hurt Georgia’s ability to fight continuing COVID-19 infections, encourage the erosion of other existing vaccine requirements for public school and college students, and hurt Georgia’s ability to fight future pandemics.
The measure excludes health care facilities that are subject to federal mandates for their employees to get vaccinated to continue receiving federal payments.
Medical experts agree COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and even with millions getting the shots, confirmed reports of deaths caused by vaccination are extremely rare.
"I think it’s reasonable to have a law not making it mandatory for school children to be vaccinated or for the general population to be vaccinated to go into buildings, but making that permanent, not knowing the future, might make that very risky," explained Dr. Cecil Bennett of Newnan family medicine.
The bill now heads to the state House for consideration.
More than 1.1 million people in the country have died from COVID-19 since 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 42,000 people in Georgia have died from the virus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report