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Arkansas government entities barred from mandating COVID-19 vaccination

By: - September 14, 2023 4:07 pm

Arkansas Sen. Joshua Bryant, left, accepts a pen from Gov. Sarah Hucakbee Sanders after she signed Senate Bill 8 during Thursday in Little Rock. The bill prohibits state and local government entities in Arkansas from requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employment or services. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Although most of the debate this week focused on tax cuts and public records, the Arkansas Legislature also voted to prohibit state and local government entities from mandating COVID-19 vaccination.

Senate Bill 3 is similar to a law the General Assembly enacted in 2021 that sunset last month. The new law doesn’t include a sunset clause.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who signed SB 3 into law on Thursday, has decried coronavirus related restrictions since taking office, and she has been even more vocal in recent weeks as COVID-19 case numbers across the U.S. have been increasing. 

Republican Rep. Howard Beaty of Crossett, the House sponsor of SB 3, encouraged lawmakers to stand alongside Sanders.

“We won’t close our churches, schools or business and we’re not going to initiate a vaccine mandate on Arkansans. That decision is a personal health freedom decision to get vaccinated between the individual Arkansan, their physician and their maker.”

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The legislation states that COVID-19 vaccination status “shall not be a condition of education, employment, entry, or services from the state or a state agency or entity or for obtaining a licensure, certificate, or permit from a state agency or entity.”

The law does allow entities to ask the Arkansas Legislative Council for exemptions from the mandate ban if the entity stands to lose federal dollars. This occurred on a handful of occasions following the 2021 law with agencies, like UAMS, that receive reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid.

The scientific and medical communities overwhelmingly agree that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe coronavirus infection.

“I’d just like to point out that I think a lot of members of this chamber are about to make decisions that are in direct conflict with what health experts are telling us,” Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said while speaking against the legislation Thursday on the House floor.

Under the law, the state Department of Health also must gather and make public information and data on “any potential risks and harms associated with the administration of the vaccine or immunization” for covid-19.

Sanders in 2021 wrote that the benefits of the “Trump vaccine” outweighed any risks, but that the decision whether to get the shots is personal and shouldn’t be required.

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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