Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

‘I am not an anti-vaxxer’: Two legislators have different reasons for opposing vaccine mandates

Sen. Jeff Agenbroad (R, Nampa)
Otto Kitsinger
Sen. Jeff Agenbroad (R, Nampa) at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Nampa Republicans worry about mandates exacerbating health care shortages

Two Nampa legislators were among the six who signed a statement on Monday declaring their opposition to local health care providers requiring employees to be vaccinated — but their reasons for doing so are nuanced.

Rep. Rick Youngblood and Sen. Jeff Agenbroad are Republicans who represent Districts 12 and 13, respectively, in Canyon County. They joined Republican Sen. Todd Lakey and Reps. Bruce Skaug, Brent Crane and Ben Adams saying, “We believe the right to refuse invasive medical procedures, including vaccinations, is paramount to the interests of the employers, employees and freedoms of the individual in almost all situations. We will support legislation to properly protect the physical freedoms of Idaho employees from mandatory COVID vaccinations.”

The statement was issued in response to news that Saint Alphonsus Health System, St. Luke’s and Primary Health Medical Group would require employees to be vaccinated by fall. Mandates have been implemented at hospitals across the U.S., facing resistance from some workers who don’t want to take the vaccine. They come as highly infectious variants, such as the delta variant, are spreading across the country.

Hospitals and clinics throughout Idaho were overwhelmed with patients during COVID-19 surges, as their own employees got sick with the virus, leaving them short-staffed. According to previous Idaho Capital Sun reporting, the push for vaccination is partly to preserve Idaho’s health care capacity, providers said.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin called on House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to reconvene the Legislature to address the issue, but so far he wants to take time to consider it. Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, told Idaho Reports there will be a caucus meeting on Friday to discuss the matter. On Tuesday, members of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry issued a letter to the Idaho Legislature that was obtained by Idaho Reports saying they voted unanimously to “vehemently oppose” the idea.

Unlike the Idaho Senate, who voted in May to adjourn until the 2022 legislative session, the House of Representatives recessed to a date no later than Dec. 31. The move allows the House to call itself back into session without needing Gov. Brad Little’s authorization for a special session. By Idaho law, only the governor can call the Legislature back for a special session once the body adjourns sine die.

Lawmakers say they believe in rights of at-will Idaho employers
While the statement was unified, Youngblood told the Idaho Capital Sun their opinions were varied. He believes strongly in the right of at-will employers in private industries to make decisions as they see fit, but since the COVID vaccines are still administered under an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it is a step too far to make them mandatory.

“We just thought that’s really premature,” Youngblood said.

He is also concerned about a shortage of health care workers in Idaho, particularly nurses, and thinks this could exacerbate that problem.

“They will lose people, and as you know, they’ve already lost people because of wages and stress and fear,” Youngblood said. “I know for a fact there’s nurses who have left because of the fear of COVID. And they’ve been worn out because of the shortage.”

Youngblood said he had COVID in November and has not been vaccinated.

Agenbroad had similar reasons for opposing the mandates but specified that he is not against the vaccine and has been vaccinated.

“And I would encourage others, if they ask my opinion, to be vaccinated,” Agenbroad said. “But at the end of the day, they have to feel comfortable with their health care decisions. … I am not an anti-vaxxer, and this has nothing to do with that. This has to do with a mandate for people who are very important to us as we continue through this (pandemic).”

Agenbroad said he certainly supports the right of a business to run without undue government interference, but this is one of very few instances where it may be necessary. He worries about staffing shortages in health care as well.

“My preference would be that legislative leadership and leadership of the health care organizations sit down and gain an understanding as to what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and the timing of this,” Agenbroad said.

However, neither legislator supported the idea of reconvening before the end of the year to address the issue. Youngblood said an interim session of the Legislature would take “who knows how long” and he doesn’t want to make any moves to indicate the body would become a full-time legislature.

“These things, challenging as they are, will come up while we’re out of session,” Youngblood said, but that doesn’t mean they need to reconvene immediately. He doesn’t know what the legislation would look like yet or what he would support, but Youngblood said it can wait until January.

Agenbroad said he wants to explore the possibility of extending medical and religious exemptions to those who feel uncomfortable with the vaccine while it’s still operating under emergency use authorization.

“As time goes on, and particularly as we get into an authorized versus emergency vaccine, more and more people may choose to take it,” Agenbroad said.

But he also wants to make sure the Idaho Legislature remains a part-time legislature and thinks it’s important for lawmakers to spend time living normally in their communities under the laws they pass each session. He also worries it wouldn’t be a productive use of time.

“With the heightened angst of not only our state citizens, but legislators too, I just don’t think the productivity of a special session would be what it needs to be,” Agenbroad said. “… I’m confident we would get distracted by other things if we reconvene.”