Vaccine exemptions would be granted to college students under bill headed to governor

HB233 also would allow in-person classes for higher-education students not immunized under religious, personal or medical exemption.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Nathan Hagen administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Wyn Chao during a news conference on Monday, March 1, 2021. On Thursday, the state Senate passed a bill that extends vaccine exemptions to higher education students and allows those who are not immunized to learn in-person.

A bill headed to the governor’s desk extends vaccine exemptions to higher education students and allows those who are not immunized to learn in-person.

The state Senate voted 21-7 Thursday to pass HB233, which also has received approval in the House.

K-12 students in Utah’s public schools can already receive a vaccine exemption for medical, personal or religious reasons, according to Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine. This bill extends that to college and university students.

HB233 also states that if a K-12 or higher education school offers both remote and in-person learning options, a student that has a vaccine exemption can attend in person.

This does not apply to students studying in a medical setting at a college or university, according to the bill, such as medical school or nursing program. And HB233 does not restrict state or local health departments from working “to contain the spread of an infectious disease.”

Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden and a Utah State University professor, said he supported the bill, adding, “I don’t think that our schools should require somebody to put something in their body.”

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, began his explanation of why he opposed HB233 by referring to Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, who said, “Never allow a good crisis go to waste.

“This is not a COVID bill. This is using COVID as an excuse to make an exemption for all kinds of people that don’t get vaccinations,” and Weiler said he thinks this is something the Legislature would not have taken on a year ago.

“I don’t think this is good policy. I don’t think this is good for the public health. And I’ll be voting no,” he said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, joined Weiler in opposing HB233.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of COVID. We’re trying really hard to bring all the schools back,” Riebe said. At the same time, Utah and the United States are seeing more contagious variants of COVID-19, she said.

Riebe said she can’t support a bill that tells teachers they need to put themselves “in harm’s way because you’re making a decision that’s going to negatively impact me.”

Teachers are getting vaccinated to prevent the spread of the virus as Utah leaders push for in-person learning, she said. This bill “undermines some of the good work that we’ve worked really hard to do to open up our schools,” according to Riebe.

Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, questioned how HB233 could affect international students, who may come from countries that don’t follow the same practices as in the United States.

“To even enter the country, you have to comply with federal regulations regarding vaccination status,” Kennedy responded. So, to come to the U.S. or enter one of Utah’s colleges or universities, “they would have to comply with federal law” and the vaccines it requires, he said.

Kennedy said the Utah System of Higher Education supports the bill, and “there are only a few people that would take advantage of these exemptions.” Anyone else could still get vaccinated and wear masks to protect themselves. This just gives people the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, he said.