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Nevada lawmakers kill COVID vaccine mandate extension

Updated December 21, 2021 - 7:31 pm

CARSON CITY — Deadlocked state legislators Tuesday failed to approve extensions to expiring COVID-19 vaccination mandates for college students and state corrections and treatment facility workers, throwing the future of both programs up in the air.

The Legislative Commission’s tie vote on party lines, with six Republicans voting against the extensions and six Democrats voting in favor, could jeopardize in-class learning throughout the Nevada System of Higher Education with the start of the spring semester.

“This was a way to try to keep people in the classroom, to keep people safe, and here we are taking a step backward because members of the Legislative Commission, who are vaccinated and believe in vaccinations, don’t want to vote for this regulation for what seem to be purely political motivations,” said Commission Chair Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, after the meeting.

The 12-member commission, made up of senators and Assembly members, acts on behalf of the full Legislature in between sessions. Democrats control the Legislature, but the commission is evenly split between the parties.

Before the commission Tuesday was legislative pre-approval of pending action by the state Board of Health to make permanent emergency vaccination mandates passed in August. By law emergency mandates are in effect for 120 days and cannot be extended.

Gaining legislative approval now, ahead of the Board of Health vote, would help fast-track their implementation, seen as crucial ahead of the start of spring semester classes. The mandates include provisions for those seeking medical or religious exemptions.

‘Wishful thinking’

Republican lawmakers on the commission, while voicing support for vaccines, took issue with the scope and efficacy of the mandates.

“Vaccines are wonderful. I love vaccines. They prevent some people from getting sick. (But) the goal to prevent all people from getting this particular virus may be a little more wishful thinking than otherwise,” said Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, a doctor. “This is a permanent regulation, and it’s a changing world and changing environment. And I don’t think a permanent regulation is a wise thing to do now.”

Democrats condemned Republican opposition as politically motivated and not based in science.

“I think it’s a red herring to argue that because a vaccine is not foolproof in some way, and will not prevent each and every person in every situation from ever having COVID or from ever getting sick from it, that we should not approve a policy that is intended to protect the public health of our students and our faculty and state workers,” said Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro D-Las Vegas. “That is irresponsible of us. It is irresponsible of us to say that because something is not foolproof that we do not support it.”

‘Frustrating and disappointing’

The mandates approved by the Board of Health in August applied to state Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Human Services employees or contractors who work in prisons, youth centers, residential treatment centers or other institutions for “vulnerable populations, and for all college and university students who attend in-person classes.

Following the commission’s vote Tuesday, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office issued a statement saying the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health would seek to bring the permanent regulations back to the commission for a second vote after the Board of Health acts on them.

The administration “listened to legislative concerns and will work to address the issues while also following public health guidelines,” Sisolak’s office said in the statement.

But with the Legislative Commission in partisan deadlock, eventual passage there seems unlikely. Yeager called the impasse “extraordinarily frustrating and disappointing.”

NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose Tuesday night circulated a systemwide memo saying the commission’s vote eliminated “the legal basis for student vaccines to be a requirement for registration for classes” and that any registration hold based on a student being unvaccinated “must be lifted immediately.”

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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