Only 19% of the state’s 5-11 year-olds fully vaccinated against COVID; Iowa Republicans advance bill to ban vaccine requirement in schools and childcare centers

A child receives the Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Nov. 6, 2021, a few days after the Emergency Use Authorization and CDC decision to allow the vaccine for this age demographic in the United States. — Nate Ivey

The number of new cases of COVID-19 in the Iowa Department of Health’s weekly update declined for the second week in a row, possibly indicating the surge driven by the spread of the Omicron variant in the state is now receding. According to IDPH, there were 22,730 newly confirmed cases of the virus over the previous seven days. Although that is still among the highest seven-day totals reported during the pandemic, it is a substantial decline from the 34,949 in IDPH’s Jan. 26 update.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients also declined from 929 in the last update to 794 this week. The department also disclosed another 156 deaths from the virus, bringing Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll to 8,657.

Speaking at the Johnson County Board of Supervisors’ work session on Wednesday, Johnson County Public Health Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said “we are starting to see our cases decrease slightly.” In January, he said, Johnson County had recorded approximately 9,000 cases of COVID-19, which is almost 6 percent of the county’s population.

Jarvis also told the supervisor that there was good news regarding vaccinations. According to JCPH’s data, 42 percent of county residents are both fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot. That’s the highest total of any county in the state.

One area of concern, however, is the vaccination rate of 5- to 11-year-olds, which has begun to plateau after reaching 55 percent. Statewide, only 19 percent of children in that age range are fully vaccinated, according to IDPH. And a bill approved by a subcommittee in the Iowa House on Tuesday won’t help efforts to increase the vaccination rate among Iowa’s children.

HF 2040 would prohibit “requiring an immunization against COVID-19 for a person to be enrolled in any licensed child care center, elementary or secondary school, or postsecondary school in Iowa prior to July 1, 2029, notwithstanding whether a person’s attendance is in person or virtual.” The bill would only ban requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, not the multiple vaccinations currently required by law.

“Iowa law requires student verification of proper immunizations against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and varicella to enroll in school,” as the Iowa City Community School District explains on its website. “At least one dose of each immunization must be given before starting school.”

There are further state-imposed vaccination requirements for students entering seventh grade (meningococcal vaccine, as well as a tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis booster shot) and incoming high school seniors “need proof of two doses of meningococcal (A, C W, Y) vaccine, or one dose if received when the student was 16 years of age or older.”

HF 2040 is sponsored by 30 of the House’s 60 Republicans, including Rep. Henry Stone of Forest City and Rep. Skyler Wheeler of Orange City, both of whom were on the three-person subcommittee that approved the bill.

“This is about a parent’s choice of what they give their children and that no child should be subject to getting an education based on this immunization itself,” Stone said during the subcommittee hearing.

“The handful of parents who spoke at the subcommittee meeting favored the legislation with one caveat — they thought the prohibition shouldn’t lift in seven years,” Jared Strong of Iowa Capital Dispatch reported. “They claimed the risks of vaccination outweigh the risks of children contracting COVID-19.”

That claim is wrong, according to the CDC, the FDA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and all the peer-reviewed studies on the subject.

Speaking on behalf of Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, lobbyist Chaney Yeast told the subcommittee, “I don’t think we should be passing legislation in the middle of a pandemic, as we are learning about the variants that continue to evolve, and their impact on children.”

Yeast said half the children recently treated in the hospital’s emergency department had tested positive for the virus.

“Our pediatric intensive care unit has been at capacity for months now,” she explained, before Stone and Wheeler voted to approve HF 2040 and advance it to the House Education Committee.

Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines, the sole Democrat on the subcommittee, voted against the bill.

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