IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa lawmaker raises vaccine skepticism with state health expert

Pedati: Vaccines 'critical and remarkable lifesaving tool'

A staff nurse draws a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for a health care worker at the University of Iowa Ho
A staff nurse draws a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for a health care worker at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Dec. 14, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — As Iowa officials work to speed up inoculations in hopes of halting the COVID-19 pandemic, a lawmaker Tuesday subjected one of the state’s top health experts to a series of questions skeptical of vaccinations.

The encounter came during a hearing on a bill that would, among other provisions, bar Iowa businesses including hospitals and other health care providers from requiring their employees to get any vaccine, or using people’s vaccination history to determine employment.

Legislative hearings typically feature rapid-fire comments from dozens of organizations and individuals who are interested in a bill.

Tuesday’s hearing on this bill for a time featured the subcommittee’s chair — Sen. Jim Carlin, a Republican from Sioux City — asking a series of questions from an anti-vaccination former health care worker who said she had quit her job because she refused to receive a flu shot.

Then Carlin asked another series of questions of Dr. Caitlin Pedati, the state epidemiologist, casting doubt on the safety of vaccinations.

Carlin claimed he had seen cases where vaccinations led to personal injury, and asked Pedati questions including why chronic disease appears to be more prevalent and why autism is more frequently diagnosed than when he was a student.

Pedati told Carlin that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, are run through rigorous testing processes to ensure they are safe and effective — not only before development but also after. She said vaccines are “absolutely critical public health tools.”

“What’s important to know is the benefit and the impact of these really awful diseases that used to spread widespread disease and death,” Pedati said. “Children used to die routinely of diseases that I’ve never seen before, because of vaccines. … Vaccines continue to be a critical and remarkable lifesaving tool that I think are incredibly important in keeping people safe and healthy here.”

The rest of the hearing’s public comment period featured a mixture of people who supported the legislation — largely stating their concerns with vaccinations in general — and public health and infectious disease experts who relayed the important role of vaccines in fighting infectious diseases.

Carlin said his proposal aims to balance the interests of businesses and health care facilities that want their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine against “a person’s legitimate interest in having autonomy over their own body.”

He expressed concern that businesses would use information in a state database to see whether Iowans have received the COVID-19 vaccine, and use that to prevent anyone who has not from working at or conducting business with their company.

A state public health department official said private businesses would not have access to any state database with that kind of personal health information.

Carlin, who on Monday announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by fellow Republican Chuck Grassley, said he appreciates “both sides” of the debate over the legislation, from medical and public health experts who are concerned about the spread of a deadly virus and people who believe individuals should decide for themselves.

Carlin and Sen. Mark Costello, a Republican from Imogene, said they have received an outpouring of public support for the legislation — Senate File 193 — which they advanced to the Senate committee on commerce. Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, declined to support it.

Lobbyist declarations show that over 100 organizations have registered to oppose the bill. Only one — Informed Choice Iowa — is listed as favoring it.

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A similar bill, House File 330, has been introduced in the Iowa House.

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