INDIANAPOLIS — As Indiana’s hospitals beg for assistance from the Indiana National Guard to address surging COVID-19 caseloads, the argument about whether employers, including hospitals, can mandate COVID-19 vaccines continues to develop in the Statehouse.

“By Christmas Eve, if this trend continues, we will have more COVID-19 patients in ICU beds or in hospital beds in the state of Indiana than at any point in this pandemic,” said Dr. Gabriel Bosslet, a pulmonary and critical care doctor and professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

With just over half of eligible Hoosiers fully vaccinated, hospitalizations remain comparable to one year ago when zero Hoosiers were vaccinated. One year ago 3,147 Hoosiers were hospitalized with COVID-19; 3,058 Hoosiers were hospitalized as of Dec. 15.

Bosslet urged Hoosiers to get vaccinated based on his experiences treating unvaccinated patients in intensive care. His testimony was in the midst of hours of legislative testimony from others promoting conspiracy theories and denying medical science.

Under House Bill 1001, employers who comply with the pending federal order to mandate vaccines could face financial repercussions from the state in the form of mandated employer-paid testing and an inability to part ways with a vaccine-hesitant employee. The House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee heard testimony in a nearly seven-hour meeting Thursday.

Language in the bill seemingly contradicts Indiana’s history as a right-to-work, business-friendly state by expanding the role of state government. Lawmakers heard testimony opposing the bill from nearly every business sector, including manufacturing and hospitality representatives.

“Please stay out of our business operations. Hoosier employers are in the best position to determine what is the best vaccine policy for the safety of their employees, customers and patients,” Kevin Brinegar, CEO and president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said on behalf of member businesses.

Brinegar said businesses didn’t want to be forced to vaccinate their employees, either, as required under three separate federal mandates. All three lawsuits, targeting different business sectors, are currently stuck in court proceedings.

The crowd treated the testimony more like a political rally than a formal committee hearing, frequently responding with cheers and applause despite the chair requesting several times to behave respectfully.

“The lack of decorum in here is astonishing,” said Chair Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo. “I can’t believe grown adults can’t listen to a simple request.”

Testimony contained multiple contradictions and misinformation, including abortion-rights activists calling for government to stop interfering with people’s bodies, doctors falsely touting the benefits of Ivermectin, and medical workers referencing Nazis and the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics.

Another doctor, Kokomo cardiologist Donald Weserhausen, pushed back against misinformation shared during the hearing, noting that much of it originated from cherry-picked studies on waning vaccine immunity.

“I heard they said natural immunity is better than immunity from vaccines … I got on the (John’s) Hopkins website, and there’s an article right there from two experts that lists three different studies saying that vaccine immunity is actually better than natural immunity,” Weserhausen said, noting natural immunity waned about six months later.

“These are facts. Facts are stubborn and hard,” said Weserhausen, president of the Indiana chapter of the American College of Cardiology. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re not entitled to (their) facts.”

Thursday’s hearing was the latest step in a rocky path for the bill that has two parts that might be separated if it passes the House and moves to the Senate.

The bill started after Gov. Eric Holcomb asked the General Assembly for legislation to end the state of emergency without ending the enhanced federal funding benefits and House Republicans added language on businesses.

Holcomb indicated that he would prefer the bill’s language be split into different bills, one for his priorities tackling Medicaid, food assistance and licensing and another addressing vaccine mandate language.

“Those three things had universal agreement,” Holcomb said Wednesday, before Thursday’s testimony.

“Why not deal with what we agreed on, get that out of the way and then have our discussion (that) ties into a bigger issue.”

Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, seemed open to splitting the bill once it came to his chamber.

“There’s some wisdom in that because obviously the two issues are a little bit different. Both pertain to the COVID-19 experience, but one is a bit more straightforward,” Bray said Wednesday, also before bill testimony Thursday. “There’s a lot of talk about doing that separately.”

Bill author Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said action would be taken on this bill in committee when members return in January.
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