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Nov. 2, 2023 |  By: AP

Conservative Nebraska lawmakers push study to question pandemic-era mask, vaccine requirements


It didn’t take long for conservative Nebraska lawmakers to get to the point of a committee hearing held Wednesday to examine the effectiveness of public health safety policies from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following a brief introduction, Nebraska Nurses Association President Linda Hardy testified for several minutes about the toll the pandemic has taken on the state’s nursing ranks. The number of nurses dropped by nearly 2,600 from the end of 2019 to the end of 2022, said Hardy, a registered nurse for more than 40 years. She pointed to a study by the Nebraska Center for Nursing that showed nurses were worried about low pay, overscheduling, understaffing and fear of catching or infecting family with the potentially deadly virus.

“How many nurses quit because they were forced into vaccination?” asked Sen. Brian Hardin, a business consultant from Gering.

When Hardy said she hadn’t heard of nurses leaving the profession over vaccination requirements, Hardin shot back. “Really?” he asked. “Because I talked to some nurses in my district who retired exactly because of that.”

The question of masks, mandatory shutdowns and the effectiveness of COVID vaccines was repeated time and again during the hearing. Those invited to testify included members of Nebraska medical organizations and government emergency response agencies.

The hearing came as Republicans across the country have sought to raise fears that government-issued lockdowns and mask mandates are set to make a return in the wake of a late summer COVID-19 spike and the rollout of a new vaccine.

The Nebraska Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but lawmakers self-identify by party affiliation. The body has been controlled by Republicans for decades in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor since 1994.

While it’s unclear what action might come from the legislative study, committee Chairman Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair has criticized past COVID-19 mandates. In 2022, he introduced a bill to allow workers to opt out of vaccine requirements based on “strong moral, ethical, or philosophical” beliefs or convictions. The bill passed after being pared down to allow only religious and health exemptions — two carveouts that were already included under federal law.

Hansen said the study is intended to help lawmakers determine how to craft — or intervene in — public policy in the wake of another pandemic.

Most who testified Wednesday defended actions taken in 2020 and 2021, during the height of the first global pandemic in more than a century. One Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services official likened the response to “building a plane while we were flying it.”

But Hardin and Hansen repeatedly questioned the practices. Hardin criticized quarantine orders for those exposed to the virus as unprecedented — an assertion disputed by health officials. Hansen asked nearly every person who testified about the origins of the decision shut down in-person school classes and speculated that the COVID-19 vaccine might not be safe.

Dr. John Trapp, chief medical officer at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, pushed back, describing the vaccine as “100% effective.”

“We have to stay above the fray that wants to politicize a respiratory disease,” he said.