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VOL. 44 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 20, 2020

Tennessee bill would expand coronavirus vaccine exemptions

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee would no longer prohibit parents from refusing vaccinations of their children under a proposal that's been filed as COVID-19 cases continue to rise ahead of the GOP-dominant Statehouse's upcoming legislative session.

Tennessee law currently allows parents to refuse to immunize their children as long as the state is "in the absence of an epidemic or immediate threat of an epidemic." Other sections of Tennessee statute allow parents to deny immunizations of their kids "except where the medical examination, immunization or treatment is necessary for the protection of the health or safety of others."

These exceptions would be removed according to the legislation, allowing parents to opt out of school-required vaccinations during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill also would give parents the option to cite "right of conscience" as a reason not to immunize their children.

Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, and Sen. Mark Pody, a Republican from Lebanon, are the lead sponsors of the legislation. They introduced the bill earlier this week.

Lawmakers won't consider taking up the proposal until the General Assembly kicks off its 2021 session in January.

In the interim, the state's top health officials are working on developing a distribution plan once a coronavirus vaccine is available. The health department has said first responders will be the state's top priority for receiving the vaccine during the initial distribution phases, with health care workers being the next priority.

At the end of the 2019-20 school year, 95% of Tennessee kindergarteners were reported to be fully immunized, according to the health department's latest annual report.

However, the report said there's been a noticeable uptick in the number of families using the religious exemption. The report hypothesized families were likely using that exemption "in lieu of a personal philosophical exemption," even though doing so could result in a penalty of perjury. Students in private schools particularly saw a higher use of the religious exemption.

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee on Friday adopted a new immunization rule that allows the school to require students to have both the flu and coronavirus vaccinations. The rule will exempt students who enrolled only online and are not participating in in-person learning, and also will allow for medical or religious exemptions.

With a COVID-19 vaccine drawing closer, public health officials across the country are gearing up for the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history — a monumental undertaking that must distribute hundreds of millions of doses, prioritize who's first in line and ensure that people who get the initial shot return for the necessary second one.

The push could begin as early as next month, when federal officials say the first vaccine may be authorized for emergency use and immediately deployed to high-risk groups, such as health care workers.

Potential vaccines are still in the trial phase and have not been approved. They must be safe and effective before approval for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Follow AP's coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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