JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — In Democratic-led Washington state, just four lawmakers were present in the 98-member House this week as they convened a mostly remote session with an abundance of caution. Anyone working there is required to be tested for COVID-19 three days a week and show proof of vaccination — including a booster shot — to step onto the House floor. [MedScape 1.12.2022]
By contrast, Missouri's Republican-led Legislature began a fully in-person session with no COVID-19 screening at the Capitol and no requirement to be vaccinated or wear masks. One week into their session, lawmakers already have filed nearly three dozen bills banning, discouraging or providing exemptions from vaccination requirements.
The differing approaches highlight a persistent partisan gap in pandemic policy as states begin a third year of legislative sessions amid a virus outbreak that many had assumed would be waning but is instead surging to near peak levels of hospitalizations because of the omicron variant.
As lawmakers in some Democratic-led states meet remotely because of renewed COVID-19 concerns, their counterparts in many Republican-led legislatures are beginning their 2022 sessions on a quest to outlaw vaccine mandates and roll back pandemic precautions.
"We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who described the "intellectual schism" as "very disturbing."
"In many ways, the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government," Benjamin said.
The political divisions that began over government-ordered shutdowns, social distancing and mask mandates in the early stages of the pandemic have progressed as governments have shifted to vaccinations as a primary means of a combating a virus that has killed more than 835,000 in the U.S.
Republican legislation opposing vaccine mandates has been spurred largely by rules from President Joe Biden's administration requiring COVID-19 vaccinations or regular testing for large and medium-sized employers, health care providers and federal contractors. Many Democratic governors also have issued vaccine or testing requirements for government workers, heath care facilities, schools or child-care providers.
Though not always preventing illness, vaccines have proved effective at decreasing severe COVID-19 cases leading to hospitalization or death. Republican objections are rooted largely in libertarian ideology.
"To have something injected into your body as a condition of employment lest you be fired or not hired, well it's not American," said Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican from Branson. "It tends toward socialism, communism and whatever other -ism you want to talk about."