Brief

As COVID-19 cases top 1 million, legislators seek to loosen vaccine requirements

By: - January 6, 2022 5:57 am
Stop the Mandate reads a sign at the "freedom march" against vaccine mandates. Also lots of American flags, no masks

Protestors in Los Angeles rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees. (Mario Tama | Getty Images)

Wisconsin lawmakers heard more than two hours of testimony Wednesday in favor of a bill that would let COVID-19 survivors claim so-called natural immunity as an alternative to complying with a vaccine mandate from an employer.

Only witnesses supporting the bill spoke at Wednesday’s public hearing before the Assembly Constitution and Ethics Committee. Several health organizations registered their opposition to the legislation, including the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards.

The hearing came on the same day that the state Department of Health Services (DHS) reported that the number of Wisconsin residents confirmed to have had COVID-19 topped 1 million.

The legislation — AB-675 and its Senate companion, SB-662 — targets employers that have instituted a vaccine requirement for employees or job applicants, including many hospitals and other health care providers. Under the bill, those employers would be required to accept a medical report documenting a past COVID-19 infection or a blood test showing antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in place of the vaccine or recurring, negative COVID-19 tests.

Public health practitioners have reported for months that a previous infection by itself isn’t as effective as vaccination at preventing COVID-19. At a briefing in August, Dr. Ben Weston of the Medical College of Wisconsin told reporters that studies have shown that people who have been previously infected with the virus aren’t consistently protected from it in comparison with people who have been vaccinated. At the same time, he said, being fully vaccinated appears to help people who have had a previous COVID-19 infection gain an even stronger immunity.

Rep. Cody Horlacher (R-Mukwonago) introduced the Assembly bill but was unable to testify in its favor Wednesday because he was “very under the weather,” said his aide, Steve Knudson, who read Horlacher’s testimony in his place.

Horlocher’s statement argued that employers requiring the vaccine should consider a previous past bout of COVID-19 as the equivalent, and also that “getting it [the vaccine] should be left to the discretion of those who have not yet had the disease.”

Also testifying was Aaron Henkel, a Madison-based naturopathic practitioner. Naturopathy emphasizes the body’s natural healing. The field is not a licensed profession in Wisconsin, although a recently introduced bill would institute a state licensing procedure for practitioners.

“During the past two years, I have seen my patients slowly have the rights and privileges taken away in the guise of trying to stop a virus that will not be stopped by forcing mass vaccinations on everyone,” Henkel told lawmakers.

While none of the opposing groups presented testimony Wednesday, the American Lung Association-Wisconsin prepared testimony on the Senate version of the bill for a public hearing that was scheduled for December. The lung association’s testimony noted an August 2021 study that found unvaccinated people who had previously been infected were “more than twice as likely to be reinfected with COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated after initially contracting the virus.”  

The Senate hearing — which had also been scheduled to hear testimony about two other bills that sought to blunt COVID-19 vaccine mandates — was postponed after a report of COVID-19 infection in the office of Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

"Ron Johnson" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Ron Johnson (Gage Skidmore |  CC BY-SA 2.0)

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) suggested that immunity from an infection should be considered superior to the vaccine, telling conservative broadcaster Vicki McKenna, “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease?”

Dr. Ann Helms, a Brookfield neurologist and representative of the Committee to Protect Health Care, released a statement condemning the remark. “The safe, effective vaccines have saved countless lives across Wisconsin, while so called ‘natural’ infection has killed over 10,000 of our fellow Wisconsinites and caused severe health problems for many more,” Helms stated.

In response to the latest surge of COVID-19 cases, some restaurants in Milwaukee and Madison have instituted new vaccine requirements for patrons. In addition, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, representing mainline Christian denominations, on Wednesday announced it was urging congregations to resume conducting worship remotely rather than in person.

“This will protect vulnerable individuals, ease the burden on our health care systems, and avoid worsening the pandemic through our actions,” said Rev. Kerri Parker, the council’s executive director. “Bringing COVID under control requires the care of communities.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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