AUGUSTA – During a press briefing on Wednesday, Senate Republicans discussed the overwhelming response lawmakers had from the public during a series of hearings on Monday in front of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. The hearings, which began at 10 a.m. Monday morning, didn’t end until over 12 hours later on Monday night.
The public hearings involved six bills submitted by Republicans that would reestablish religious and philosophical exemptions for schoolchildren and healthcare workers, and prohibit mandatory immunizations with any vaccine that is operating under an Emergency Use Authorization issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In all, nearly 500 pieces of testimony were submitted to the committee with about 87% of them in favor of the proposed legislation. From doctors and parents to healthcare workers and firefighters, scores of people showed up to testify virtually and in person, which led to a long day for both committee members and those waiting to testify.
According to Senate Assistant Republican Leader Lisa Keim, the stories shared by witnesses were heartbreaking and followed common threads, mostly around the loss of liberties and even their jobs when legislation was passed in 2019 that took away the non-medical exemptions.
“As Republicans, we are here to stand in support with the droves of people who came out to speak and really plead that their freedom of conscience be restored,” she said at the briefing. “They shared agonizing stories of lost educational opportunity and lost livelihoods.”
The Oxford County Republican said the removal of the exemptions has been too high a price for some families to pay, especially in the pursuit of what many have considered a flawed premise for the vaccines to begin with.
“The problem with mandates is that they force Maine people to rely on big pharma and the government to make their healthcare decisions,” Keim said.
Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, said the state’s healthcare workforce needs workers and barriers at both the state and federal level are prohibiting prospective nursing students who are unimmunized against COVID-19 from being able to enroll in nursing programs. The federal rules, put in place by the Biden Administration in 2021, require any institution that accepts Medicare or federal funds to comply with the COVID-19 vaccination mandate unless they have an exemption at the state level, which Maine abolished.
“Maine is one of six states that does not have any non-medical exemptions. It’s not good, it’s not fair,” she said. “And when you start looking at the CMS rules, they date back to November 5th of 2021.”
For Sen. James Libby, who serves on the committee that heard the 12 hours of testimony, many of the stories were poignant and emotional but one in particular stood out.
“I thought that one of the really compelling pieces of testimony came from a Portland firefighter who was fired from their job and they had 10 years of experience. They were previously covered by a religious exemption, but it was taken away,” he said.
The Cumberland County Republican said other stories ranged from a pulmonary bedside nurse to a paramedic from Phillips who had a daughter and had to move to Texas to work despite a desire to stay in Maine. And when it comes to the vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, he said having no non-medical exemptions is discriminatory.
“How is it that tiny Maine should be different and not allow any exemptions when these kids travel and they intermingle and they’re obviously exposed to other children? If you break it down that way, and you think about okay, what is the reason that we have this rule in place, I find it to be discriminatory,” Libby said. “I think it’s pure discrimination because some people don’t like the people who are saying, ‘We deserve a religious exemption from these vaccines.’”
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Androscoggin, said the premise that vaccine advocates have used to justify the mandates has shifted over the years, especially when the initial reason of preventing the spread never quite panned out. This led to outspoken critics of the mandates whose posts were either labeled as misinformation by social media companies or removed from the platforms entirely.
“There has never been a compelling scientific basis for COVID-19 vaccination mandates as public health policy. You had very highly regarded epidemiologists, folks at institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford universities who spoke out early about this; and what happened to them?” he asked. “They were blacklisted on Twitter. They were censored because they were undermining the political consensus around these vaccination mandates.”
Citing a physical therapist in a nursing home in Aroostook County who he said worked at the height of the pandemic, the therapist eventually contracted COVID-19 and eventually went back to work. A year later? He was fired for not having the vaccine despite the fact that he had natural immunity.
“One year they’re heroes, and the next year they’re being summarily fired from their jobs and told ‘You’re not welcome back,’” he said. “And now we have a healthcare worker shortage.”