Alaska Legislature

Alaska House votes down measures opposing vaccine mandates

JUNEAU — After a last-minute lobbying effort, the Alaska House of Representatives on Tuesday defeated a series of Republican-backed budget amendments that could have penalized organizations that require COVID-19 vaccinations.

Had the amendments passed, they would have said that it is the Legislature’s intent to stop some state funding going to organizations that require vaccinations or collect information about vaccination status. One amendment failed 10-29; the others were defeated 18-21 and 19-21.

The amendments, from Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, were proposed Tuesday as lawmakers prepared to vote on a bill that would fund an $1,100 Permanent Fund dividend and $114 million in tax credits to oil and gas companies.

On the same day the debate took place, Alaska hospitals tied the record for the most patients hospitalized for COVID-19.

The amendments would not have had legal power — intent language is not a law — but after one amendment initially passed on a 21-19 vote, the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association was so alarmed that it sent an urgent message to lawmakers, asking them to oppose it. After that message, the House re-voted and rejected it. The measure would have allowed state funding only to entities “that establish a policy stating that an individual’s COVID-19 vaccination status is considered confidential information and that the entity will not solicit, collect, or maintain that information.”

Jared Kosin, director of the association, said that even though the amendments didn’t propose a new law, they would have created legal confusion just as medical facilities are dealing with a crisis.

“It’s terrible policy. We’re at the worst point of the pandemic. And this is where energy is being focused on? It was too much,” he said. “Even though they are maybe narrowly applied, the risk was not worth it. We’re so fed up with this approach to dealing with such a serious situation.”

Speaking in favor of the amendments, Eastman and other Republican members of the House said they want to prioritize individual decisions and oppose vaccination mandates.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said he has received about as many messages opposing vaccination rules as messages in favor of a larger Permanent Fund dividend.

Carpenter represents a strongly Republican district, and Republicans are less likely than Democrats to get vaccinations.

Vaccination generally reduces the severity of COVID-19 illness, and nationwide, individual decisions on vaccination appear to be driving the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since July 1, the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates have seen a 256% growth in COVID-19 deaths. The 10 states with the highest vaccination rates have seen 7% growth in COVID-19 deaths, according to an analysis using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“The health care system is on fire right now,” Kosin said. “And our caregivers are exhausted. So to tolerate policy like this, that undermines people who are trying to function and trying to run safe environments.”