Legislation barring covid-19 vaccine mandates advances from Arkansas Senate committee

Bill on covid vaccinations sent to full Arkansas Senate

Creshelle Nash, the medical director for health equity and public programs at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, administers a dose of the coronavirus vaccine during a vaccine clinic held Nov. 21, 2021 at Jack Stephens Arena on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

An Arkansas Senate panel approved a bill Monday that would extend a ban on covid-19 vaccine mandates for public entities.

Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, advanced from the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor in a voice vote with audible dissent from Sen. Fred Love, D-Little Rock. The bill moves to the full Senate for further consideration.

Under SB 3, state and local government officials would be barred from mandating or requiring an individual from receiving a vaccine or immunization for covid-19 or any subvariants of the virus.

Officials also would be prohibited from requiring a person to receive a vaccine as a condition of education, employment, entry or services from the state or a state agency or entity or for obtaining a licensure certificate or permit from a state agency entity.

Bryant told committee members the legislation was needed to reinstate a ban originally included in Act 977 of 2021, which he said expired in August.

"Without this law on the books, our entities in the state would be able to mandate a vaccine," Bryant said. "Gov. [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders was very clear that we do not want that across our state."

While speaking at a news conference last week, Sanders said officials must be "sure that government never again tramples on our liberty like it did during the covid-19 pandemic."

If a public entity determines it must require vaccines to receive federal funding, the entity would have to receive approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council before instituting a mandate under SB 3.

"I think Gov. Sanders was very clear that that's going to be on a case-by-case basis with strict and tight controls on it," Bryant said.

While Act 977 was in effect, lawmakers granted exemptions to at least three state agencies.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services, the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences were each permitted to implement covid-19 vaccination requirements, with religious and medical exemptions, for employees in facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Another provision in SB 3 would require the Arkansas Department of Health to maintain information and data on "any potential risks and harms associated with the administration of the vaccine or immunization" for covid-19 or subvariants of the virus and make the information and data publicly available.

State and local officials are also barred from coercing individuals to receive covid-19 vaccinations or discriminating against individuals who have not received a shot.

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved and authorized for emergency use updated covid-19 vaccines formulated to more closely target variants of the virus that are currently circulating. The updated vaccines are also intended to provide better protection against serious consequences of covid-19, including hospitalization and death, according to a news release from the agency.

"The FDA is confident in the safety and effectiveness of these updated vaccines and the agency's benefit-risk assessment demonstrates that the benefits of these vaccines for individuals 6 months of age and older outweigh their risks," officials said in the release.

There have been at least 45,617 reported cases of covid-19 and 427 deaths related to the virus in 2023, according to the latest available data Monday from the Arkansas Department of Health's covid-19 dashboard.