BISMARCK — With just days to go in North Dakota's legislative session, lawmakers approved the addition of a narrow ban on vaccination requirements into an unrelated bill, citing the need to ease the concerns of a vocal segment of constituents fearful of a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
House Bill 1465, originally intended to allow for a study of health insurance networks, passed both legislative chambers Wednesday, April 28, after lawmakers added a provision that would establish a limited ban on so-called "vaccine passports," or documented proof of an individual's vaccination status. The bill was approved 72-14 in the House and 44-3 in the Senate. It now goes to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk.
North Dakota officials have not indicated any plans to institute COVID-19 vaccination requirements, and a spokesperson for Burgum said the governor is opposed to state-mandated vaccine passports. Still, the concept has lately emerged as a political flashpoint in national pandemic debates and drawn strong opposition from some North Dakotans.
"We want to recognize those concerns they have as legitimate, and we wanted to alleviate those concerns without it being onerous to businesses and health care," said West Fargo Republican Sen. Judy Lee, who sat on a bipartisan conference committee that unanimously approved the vaccine passport addition on Tuesday. Lee added that she sees worries around vaccine passports as "overblown" but said she was comfortable with the provision because it had been watered down to minimize the consequences for the COVID-19 pandemic or future health emergencies.
The ban outlined in the bill would prevent state and local governments from requiring proof of vaccination under a narrow set of circumstances, applying only outside a state of public health emergency and when a vaccine has been given an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccines are currently under an FDA emergency use authorization.
The bill prevents state and local governments from requiring private businesses to mandate proof of vaccination, though higher education institutions are exempted from the provision. It also bars businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers, while providing an exception for health care providers and nursing homes. The ban does not apply to immunization requirements in public K-12 schools.
After more than a year under a pandemic state of emergency, North Dakota's COVID-19 disaster declaration is set to end on Friday.
This week's addition to the health insurance study bill is the latest in a string of recent attempts by North Dakota legislators to pass vaccine passport legislation in the waning days of the session.
Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, R-Lisbon, tried to introduce a more sweeping vaccine passport ban through a floor vote last week, picking up 40 votes in favor of introduction but falling well short of the two-thirds majority required. A ban on vaccination requirements was also amended into an unrelated bill aimed at restricting the governor's emergency powers. That bill failed on the Senate floor, in part because of several additions that were not germane to the bill.
Separately, lawmakers passed a symbolic resolution earlier this month urging Congress to refrain from implementing a vaccine passport requirement.
Vaccine passports have become a hot issue on the national level in the last month after reports that the White House was looking into mandated proof of immunization for travel, though federal officials have since said they have no such plans. Several states have banned or limited vaccine passports, including neighboring Montana and South Dakota.
Hurdsfield Republican Rep. Robin Weisz, who carried North Dakota's vaccine passport ban on the House floor on Wednesday, called the addition a "compromise" to alleviate any concerns that the state would try to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
"I'm not aware of anybody that's even talking about doing that, but it's giving that comfort level," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.