Members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee hear testimony Tuesday on a bill that would bar the state from imposing new vaccine mandates for five years. Screenshot from video

A bill that seeks to bar Maine from imposing any COVID-19 vaccination mandates for five years drew a slew of worried residents pleading with lawmakers to back the measure despite a lack of evidence their fears have merit.

State Rep. Tracy Quint, a Republican from Hodgdon, testifies Tuesday about her bill to ban vaccine mandates for five years in Maine. Screenshot from video

The bill, pushed by Republicans and who are outnumbered in the Legislature, says the mandate delay is needed to allow more time for research on potential fertility problems from the vaccines, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and other experts say there is no reason to believe there is any risk.

State Rep. Tracy Quint, a Republican from Hodgdon who is sponsoring the measure, told colleagues it would protect “the vital right of all Mainers to informed consent” about a vaccine whose long-term effects are unknown. She called it a chance “to change course” on the controversial issue.

Typical of many of the more than 280 testifying remotely or in writing during the more than three-hour hearing was Matt Landry of Greene, who told legislators he is “tired of these jabs being forced against the people’s will and making people sick, injured or dead. I can see it happening to people I know, and it makes my blood boil.”

There is no evidence that the vaccine is making many people “sick, injured or dead,” but there is evidence that the shots are decreasing the lethal nature of COVID-19 for anyone who is fully vaccinated. In every state and country, the rates of hospitalization and death are significantly higher among those who are unvaccinated.

Nobody has been forced to get a vaccine. Some people have jobs that require a COVID-19 vaccine, but people could look for work elsewhere.

Stacy McCracken, a registered nurse from Woodstock, told lawmakers she lost a position at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston rather than getting vaccinated because she wants to see more safety testing and to find out if there are any long-term effects.

“The decision to accept the vaccine or lose my job was a decision I had never imagined I would have to make, especially as an RN, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

It’s one that has meant the loss of her full-time income, perhaps forcing her family to move out of the state soon, she said.

Alaina Church, a registered nurse in Fairfield, said she began losing sleep over the issue.

“This vaccine and mandate is the first thought when I open my eyes in the morning and my last thought at night. It has taken a huge toll financially, mentally and physically on my family and on me beyond any words I can describe,” Church told legislators. She urged them to approve the five-year delay for any vaccine mandates.

Not everyone supported the delay.

Rachel Dyer of Augusta urged legislators to vote down the bill, leaving open the option of imposing vaccine requirements similar to ones already in place for a range of once-common illnesses.

Dyer said “immense harm to the public health has been done through deception and disinformation regarding vaccinations” from people who have undermined trust in public health and fostered fear.

She said the debate on the measure should be based on reason, not fear.

Anthony Shostak of Greene said it is possible to be “excited by the innovative technology used in these vaccines” while also questioning if their approval has been too hasty.

He expressed concern that if mandated vaccines are not blocked, his children may be required to get them to attend school “thanks to the Legislature’s ill-considered and unconstitutional law that removes religious exemption.”

By a 3-to-1 ratio in March 2020, Maine voters endorsed the removal of religious exemptions for mandatory vaccines. At this point, there is no requirement that students get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Shostak said mandating a COVID-19 vaccine would be “absolutely unconscionable” because, in his view, it is not tested adequately and has “dubious efficacy,” and because COVID-19 presents “minimal risk to the majority of the population.”

COVID-19 has killed more than 840,000 Americans and millions more in other countries.

The Maine Medical Association’s testimony said “despite rampant misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines and the hyperpolitical environment around the science behind vaccines and guidance from national and local public health experts, the vaccines are safe, effective and save lives.”

Northe Saunders, executive director of the Safe Communities Coalition, told lawmakers Tuesday that the bill to bar Maine from imposing any COVID-19 vaccination mandates for five years “panders to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.” Screenshot from video

For Northe Saunders, executive director of Safe Communities Coalition, a Portland nonprofit, the bill “is based on fear and misinformation” and lacks a “logical or scientific basis.”

He said the measure “panders to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and undermines our collective progress to protect our children, families and community from this deadly disease.”

Lewis Corriveau of Sidney urged legislators to “stop COVID vaccination mandates until the science is more clear as to the side effect, efficacy, etc. As a freedom-loving American I believe in making informed decisions” and despite more than two years of coping with the disease “the science is still murky and hidden from public review.”

The science involved in the vaccines has been reviewed repeatedly by the federal Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and scores of scientific organizations.

Hilary Schneider, government relations director for Maine for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the proposed ban is “a piece of legislation that could place the health of cancer patients at greater risk.”

“Cancer treatments — from chemotherapy to immunotherapy to bone marrow transplants — often weaken a patient’s immune system, making cancer patients especially vulnerable to communicable illnesses like COVID-19,” Schneider said. “Fortunately, the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine will mean many cancer patients can be protected from the virus and resume their normal treatments safely.”

Michael Blakemore of Brunswick urged legislators to approve the five-year ban to find out what impact the COVID-19 vaccines may have “on our health or the health of the unborn generation to come. There is no way to research this other than wait for the outcome.”

A licensed paramedic, Blakemore said he “walked away from a 20-year career at United Ambulance in Lewiston, because I was unwilling to submit myself to this experiment.”

He said requiring health care workers to get vaccines “is needlessly diminishing our already crippled health care staff in Maine.”

Blakemore said he’s watched nurses at Central Maine Medical Center’s emergency department cry “because they are so overwhelmed, due to low staffing” and many sick patients who “spent their lives making very unhealthy choices, which has become a blight on our medical system as a whole.”

But Caitlin Gilmet of Portland, who is active with Maine Families for Vaccines, said the way to relieve the health care system is more vaccinations, not less.

She said the bill “seeks to undermine both scientific consensus and common sense” and is “rooted in misinformation.”

Liz Caruso of Caratunk, a Republican contender in the 2nd Congressional District, called the concept of a mandate “abhorrent, a maneuver against the citizenry that simulates communism. This is not how we reward hard workers. We are certainly in a labor crisis as it is, the traditional American hard work ethic is hard to find, and a mandate would cause even more loss in the diminished labor force.”

There is little chance the bill will win the support of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, or the Democratic-controlled House or Senate. The GOP in Maine and across the nation is pushing against mandated vaccinations.

Students in Maine are required to be immunized against diphtheria, measles, meningococcal meningitis, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, tetanus, rubella and chickenpox.

Health care workers in the state are mandated to be vaccinated for measles, mumps, German measles, chicken pox, hepatitis, influenza and COVID-19.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Ned Claxton, an Auburn Democrat, said the panel will hold a work session Thursday, Jan. 20.

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