SALT LAKE CITY — A law the Utah State Legislature passed that banned government from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine has expired, clearing the way for schools and other taxpayer-funded institutions to potentially require it.
"With the full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, it makes House Bill 308 essentially over," said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy.
Rep. Spendlove's bill was passed overwhelmingly in the 2021 legislative session (Republicans and Democrats supported it), blocking government from mandating the "emergency COVID-19 vaccine." But the FDA authorizing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday meant the bill expired.
"It kind of reverts back to how vaccines were considered before the coronavirus, which is government has the authority to mandate them," Rep. Spendlove told FOX 13 on Tuesday. "What we’ve seen in practice is mandates have only been used in school settings so for public education and higher education."
It is unclear if governments in Utah will start requiring it of employees, or schools will start requiring vaccination of students. FOX 13 checked with a number of governments in the state who said they have not even entertained the discussion.
The University of Utah is in discussions with Governor Spencer Cox and legislative leadership about whether to implement any mandates, FOX 13 is told. In addition to the school it self, the university has a health care system with several hospitals and numerous entertainment venues.
"University administrators are talking to state health and legislative leaders, as well as the governor’s office, to discuss masking policy in indoor spaces on campus, including classrooms and other common areas. And, with the FDA granting full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine this week, we are working with state leaders to explore greater flexibility for the university to manage its pandemic response. We hope to have more news on the outcome of these conversations later this week," said an email to U staffers on fall semester in COVID-19 authored by U of U President Taylor Randall, Dr. Michael Good of University of Utah Health and Dan Reed, the U's Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Rep. Spendlove said the COVID-19 vaccine could be required like other back-to-school shots for students (the Pfizer vaccine has only been fully authorized for those over 16).
"At this point COVID is considered to be the exact same as any other vaccine. So they can mandate it for students, but they have to allow broad exceptions for that," he said.
Utah's laws on vaccine exemptions are fairly broad. They include religious, medical and personal reasons. House Bill 233, which passed this year, blocks higher education institutions from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of enrollment.
Previous attempts by lawmakers to narrow those exemptions have repeatedly failed in the Utah legislature.
One teacher's union told FOX 13 it wanted to see school districts require COVID-19 vaccinations among students who are eligible, like schools do for measles, polio and other diseases.
"There are waivers and exceptions in place currently for immunizations. We know they work and protect students. It is good practice and backed by medical experts. Yes, we support immunizations requirements for students entering public schools we would do so for COVID," said American Federation of Teachers Utah President Brad Asay.
Rep. Spendlove said it has only been a day but he will be watching to see what happens with government COVID-19 vaccines. He pointed out that private businesses can mandate the vaccine, but expressed concerns with government being able to force it.
"I’m encouraging people to get vaccinated. I’m vaccinated. My family is vaccinated. I’m a strong advocate for it. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be allowing governments to compel people to do something like this," he said.
The legislature this year voted to approve laws restricting the ability of local health departments to implement mask mandates and reining in executive emergency powers.