State legislatures renew the push to roll back Covid-related public health measures

WASHINGTON — State legislators are mobilizing anew to roll back public health measures meant to contain the spread of Covid-19.

They are introducing bills in both liberal and conservative states that target measures like vaccine and mask requirements, which have become political lightning rods throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Several state lawmakers are also pushing legislation that would prevent hospitals and nursing homes from restricting visitors during outbreaks.

The legislative blitz comes on the heels of a similar push last year, when over half of U.S. states took some action to roll back public health powers, Kaiser Health News reported.

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The bills fall into three buckets: restricting mask mandates, banning vaccine verification systems or vaccine mandates, and rejiggering hospital and nursing home visitation policies.

It’s unclear how many of these bills will actually become law, but many are already gaining political traction.

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Bills cracking down on mask mandates are proving particularly popular. In the last week alone, there has been significant movement on anti-mask mandate bills in at least seven states. Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed such a bill last week. North Carolina legislators also sent a similar bill to the state’s Democratic governor last Thursday.

Public health officials are already on high alert.

“Restricting or prohibiting the ability of public health to manage and monitor where and how a disease spreads hinders a health departments’ ability to prevent and control not only Covid-19 but future communicable and infectious disease outbreaks,” said Andy Baker-White, the senior director of state health policy at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, in a statement.

Some of the bills being pushed by state legislators aren’t even meant as attacks on health officials, but those bills could still make their job of containing infectious disease outbreaks harder.

The lawmaker who introduced a visitation bill in Vermont told STAT in a statement that the bill “was in no way an attack on public health officials.” It was “simply a means of raising the topic with public health officials,” after her constituent was unable to visit her mother in hospice care during the Covid-19 pandemic, she added.

That lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Alyssa Black, is far from a public health critic. Her background is in health care administration, and she has also introduced bills that would institute indoor mask mandates in the state.

Black’s bill would simply require long-term care facilities to let residents identify two “essential caregivers” that could still visit the facility during a public health emergency.

Similar bills have also been introduced this legislative session in several other states, including Missouri, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Mississippi, according to data compiled by ASTHO.

Some of those bills go further than Black’s. Under Missouri’s bill, for example, hospitals could lose their license if they do not allow patients staying in the hospital for more than 24 hours to be visited by at least two designated family members and friends.

At least eight states have also introduced, reintroduced, or passed bills cracking down on the practice of businesses requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination.

Some of the legislation carries steep penalties. Wyoming’s bill, for example, would make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for someone to ask about a person’s vaccination status, if doing so is being used to decide whether that person can “access any services, goods, facilities, advantages or privileges that are public in nature.”

Source: STAT