Bill would prevent mandate of COVID-19 vaccines

PROVIDENCE — The majority of Rhode Islanders have been able to reclaim some sense of normalcy now that they’re fully vaccinated, but others worry they’ll be coerced or even mandated to roll up their sleeves. 

In response to these concerns, Sen. Elaine Morgan (Dist. 34 — Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) and Sen. Jessica de la Cruz (Dist. 23 — Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield) have introduced legislation that would prohibit employers, schools and other entities from mandating or coercing Rhode Islanders into receiving the vaccine. 

The actual language of the bill would prohibit “mandating indemnified products to consumers” — specifically speaking to manufactures that are shielded from legal liability. In the rare event that an individual had a severe adverse reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine, the recipient would not be able to sue Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson or any other vaccine the Food and Drug Administration may later approve. 

The rare blanket immunity directs those who experience adverse reactions themselves, or suffer the death of a loved one, to file for benefits with the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program. While the program was specifically designed to help cover lost wages and out-of-pocket medical expenses for those who’ve been irreparably harmed by a countermeasure, like a vaccine, critics argue that it’s difficult to use and rarely pays out. 

Last week, when the bill was heard before the Senate Commerce Committee, Morgan made a case for prohibiting employers or the government from mandating the vaccine — especially since there’s no legal recourse available to consumers.

“We should not be forced against our wills to take something that we have no recourse for,” Morgan said. 

The testimony heard by Senate Commerce echoed these sentiments, and stressed the need for bodily autonomy.

The first individual to provide testimony on behalf of this legislation, identified only by her first name, Madeline, argued that she has the right to choose and “to decline an indemnified, multi-billion, for-profit COVID vaccine without coercion.”

“I’m suddenly a second class citizen for wanting adequate safety data and product liability before accepting an experimental pharmaceutical,” Madeline said. “I’m terrified of employment mandates for these experimental products.”

“Rhode Islanders should never be forced to choose between their health and their livelihood,” she added. 

The young mother also made the argument that requiring children to wear a mask in the summer heat is a form of coercion, stating that families will be rushing to get their kids vaccinated and out of wearing a mask as soon as possible. 

“No wonder fewer and fewer people trust the government,” she said. “I don’t trust an entity that violates my bodily autonomy and erodes my ability to protect my children. A government that also protects manufacturers over consumers.” 

Joe Daly of South Kingstown also shared support for legislation, and said it would “offer vital support not only to Rhode Island consumers, but also to our valued health and medical professionals here in this state.”

“If an indemnified product is mandated by my place of work, that entire well-established process for medical decision making is taken away from my doctor and put in the hands of my employer,” Daly said. 

“Do we expect a server or a cook in a restaurant to suddenly begin making personal health decisions based upon the medical expertise of the restaurant owner?” he went on. “Would an employee in a machine shop or a law clerk in an office, or any other employee in Rhode Island be wise to undercut the trust and knowledge of their personal doctor, for that of their employer?” 

Numerous individuals also provided testimony highlighting the complete lack of legal recourse available to those who experience severe adverse reactions, including Middletown Registered Nurse Deborah Jennings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also heard from a mother whose children suffered severe adverse reactions from a flu shot. 

“Every day, I am plagued with recurring, guilt-ridden thoughts of how their vaccine injuries could have been avoided, and I wonder daily, if the pharmaceutical company that manufactured this vaccine was liable for their product safety, would my children not have suffered an adverse event?” 

“It astounds me that we, as a consumer-drive, safety-driven, equitable, fair society, allow pharmaceutical companies [to profit]from the sale and distribution of all vaccines, yet they are not held accountable nor liable for product safety,” she added.

Another individual testifying in support of the legislation, identified only by her first name, Sarah, noted that there are other “unavoidably unsafe,” indemnified products like sugar, cigarettes, alcohol, butter, automobiles, sharp knives — largely free of liability because there’s an assumption of risk

“For better or worse, US Courts have determined such products can not hold strict liability, because the utility and social value outweigh the known — and even unknown — risks associated with their use,” Sarah said. 

“This leaves it up to the consumer to decide if the risks associated with the product are worth taking,” she continued. “Employers and educational institutions do not get to decide what food or drink we ingest, nor do they get to decide the means of transportation we choose to take to work or school. Likewise, they should not be permitted to mandate the use of liability-free pharmaceutical products for their employees or pupils, when they themselves will not personally bear any physical harm such unavoidable, unsafe products can cause.” 

Where there’s risk, Sarah argues, there must be choice.

In response to her testimony, Senate Commerce Committee Chair V. Susan Sosnowski (Dist. 37 — New Shoreham, South Kingstown) expressed a need for further assessment since the term “indemnified products” doesn’t just apply to the vaccine. 

“We need to do a little more work on this bill,” Sosnowski said, expressing her appreciation for the testimony as well as her hopes to do additional research or other indemnified, liability-free products that might be included in this. “We want this bill to do exactly what it’s intended to do.” 

Over the weekend, in the days that followed this committee meeting, a federal judge ruled to dismiss a lawsuit brought forward by 117 Houston Methodist Hospital staffers who claimed it was illegal for their employer to require an “experimental” that effectively made them “guinea pigs.” 

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes disagreed with these claims, however, restating recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that states companies can legally require employees to receive the vaccine and provide incentives. 

This is the first federal ruling on a coronavirus vaccine mandate, though it likely won’t be the last. 

The attorney representing the 117 Houston Methodist Hospital staffers has already stated they’ll appeal the decision all the way up the Supreme Court if needed. 

In Rhode Island, a number of higher education institutions have already mandated its students receive the vaccine ahead of the fall semester if they wish to remain enrolled. 

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