Florida COVID vaccine rules make it easy for workers to opt out

TALLAHASSEE – Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature made it easy for a person hesitant to get vaccinated to opt out of a coronavirus vaccine claim in the workplace.

So hours later, the Florida Department of Health made opting out even easier.

On Thursday, general surgeon Dr. Joseph Ladapo an emergency rule outlining a number of exceptions that an employee can claim to avoid a mandate for a workplace vaccine. Earlier in the day, DeSantis had signed a law restricting a company’s ability to order vaccines, unless they offered the following exceptions:

  • Those with medical reasons for not getting the vaccine – including pregnancy or expected pregnancy – may opt out.
  • Those who have already been infected with COVID-19 are exempt.
  • Those with a religious objection to vaccination may opt out.
  • Those who accept periodic testing may require a waiver.
  • Those who agree to wear personal protective equipment can opt out.

Experts say the rules given by the state Department of Health come with loopholes that can be easily exploited by workers who do not want to be vaccinated.

“For people who really do not want to be vaccinated, these exceptions provide countless ways to do so,” said Marissa Baker, an assistant professor of health and safety at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

Before Ladapo signed the emergency rule, a number of details in the exceptions were undefined. For example, the legislature left it to the Ministry of Health to create a process for an employee to show that they are immune due to a previous COVID-19 infection.

Related: How will Ron DeSantis’ general surgeon work out COVID-19 mask rules?

On Thursday, the National Board of Health weighed: An employee can show signs of any previous positive test or a positive test for COVID-19 antibodies. Even a positive test from the beginning of the pandemic seems to be evidence enough to justify a vaccine exemption under the rule and an associated form.

It’s an expansive definition, said Derek Cummings, a professor and epidemiologist at Infectious Diseases at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. There are indications that capture of COVID-19 provides some protection against future infection. However, the protection seems to diminish over time, and it varies depending on the severity of the initial infection. It also depends on the strain of COVID-19 the person came in contact with.

“If the infection occurred some time ago, science says that immunity is insufficient to protect humans,” Cummings said. “But even though it was recent, data suggests that these people should be vaccinated.”

Asked whether the department’s rule makes natural immunity last forever, a department spokesman referred a reporter back to the rule.

Experts also took issue with the state’s definition of “expected pregnancy.” The Ministry of Health’s rule states that anyone of “childbearing age” who “intends to become pregnant” can claim a medical exemption from a vaccine mandate.

“The employer must accept the employee’s statements regarding the employee’s intention to become pregnant,” the rule reads.

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Baker noted that such a language could include a person planning to become pregnant years from the day they apply for exemption. The professor also argued that any rule that legitimizes the idea that it is dangerous for pregnant women to get the vaccine is scientifically unhealthy because pregnancy is a known risk factor for severe COVID-19.

The religious carving is also quite broad. An employee simply needs to sign a form that states, “I reject the COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincere religious belief, which may include a sincere moral or ethical conviction.”

Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, argued that federal law on non-discrimination in the workplace has been interpreted over the years to protect a wide range of religious beliefs.

“Like medical decisions, beliefs are deeply personal to many people and not something that workers should be forced to discuss or” prove “(human resources),” Pushaw wrote in a Friday email.

A Biden administration rule that mandates vaccines or tests in workplaces with 100 or more employees also comes with a religious exception. The same goes for a federal rule that mandates the shots in some health facilities. According to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers should assume that requests for religion-based vaccination exemptions are made in good faith – unless “an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or sincerity of A particular faith. “

Baker said Florida rules are right to accommodate different religious beliefs. But she said she would like to see additional rules that require mask wearing and regular testing from workers who make use of religious or medical exemptions.

When it weighs heavily in testing, the Department of Health’s rule limits how often an employer can test an unvaccinated employee. The company may require a test “at most weekly,” according to the rules.

Tom Unnasch, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, said rules that allow for more frequent testing would capture a greater number of workplace infections.

While the world is heading into yet another COVID-19 wave, Unnasch argued that policies that encourage vaccination are the way out of the pandemic.

“It’s pretty clear if you look at what’s going on worldwide that the only thing that can beat this thing is vaccination,” he said.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling for University of Florida professor Derek Cummings.)

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for 5 years and up and booster shots for qualified recipients are administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow you to book appointments online. To find a site near you:

Find a website: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability information and access line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Coronavirus Coverage

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