The Speaker of the Ohio House on Wednesday defended his decision to re-appoint a representative with outspoken anti-vaccine views to the helm of the House Health Committee.
Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, has pushed legislation to weaken Ohio’s vaccine laws; called in to video conferences hosted by anti-vaccine groups; made public statements about the need to slow or stop the COVID-19 vaccine rollout; and alleged a lack of “proper studies” about the COVID-19 vaccines.
House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, renamed Lipps to the top health post for the two-year legislative session that started last month.
The appointment comes during a race to administer two available COVID-19 vaccines — in constantly short supply — as new coronavirus variants emerge that are more infectious and slightly resistant to the vaccine.
In April, Lipps joined a video conference call hosted by Health Freedom Ohio, a group of anti-vaccine activists. Members fretted about what a legislative response to the development of COVID-19 vaccines might look like.
One asked Lipps for effective strategies for members to have their voices heard by legislators. Along with some advocacy tips, Lipps asked for backup.
“I need help with members of the health committee, because we’re going to face a couple huge bills that are gonna matter,” he said.
“We’re gonna face a couple bills that this group does not like. And I have to have energy to stop this vaccine shit that’s coming.”
In late January 2021, a producer with AJ+, a digital news outlet, asked Lipps about the remark. He briefly responded before cutting off the interview.
“I meant, until we have the proper studies, and understand what we’re putting in our body, we’ve got to slow it down. I don’t mean to stop it. That’s a strong term. And I did use that term. But I think slow it down is a better term,” he said to the producer.
Lipps has also co-sponsored legislation to require schools to inform parents how to opt out of mandatory student immunizations. Ohio’s comparatively weak vaccine laws allow for exemptions for “reasons of conscience” and religious exemptions.
State law also allows exemptions for students with medical contraindications (a condition or factor that serves as a reason to withhold a certain medical treatment due to the harm that it would cause the patient), or those who have acquired natural immunity through infection.
Cupp, when asked why he appointed someone with anti-vaccine views to the top health post during an infectious disease pandemic, said Lipps’ comments were taken out of context.
“He was talking about mandatory vaccination, he wasn’t talking about voluntary vaccination,” Cupp said. “His family has been vaccinated, so he’s obviously not anti-vaccine.”
There was no mention of any vaccine mandate during the April HFO meeting or Lipps’ AJ+ interview, according to a review of footage of both events. However, Lipps said mandates were understood to be the basis of the HFO call.
In an interview Thursday, Lipps denied any characterization of himself as “anti-vaccine.” He said his children are vaccinated; he helped his octogenarian parents sign up and receive their COVID-19 vaccines; and noted he has co-sponsored legislation to allow podiatrists to administer flu shots.
However, he said he supports legislative proposals to prohibit employers from requiring that their employees receive immunizations. He said his issue lies with any kind of “coercion” or “mandate” to receive a vaccine — not the vaccines themselves.
If he could today, Lipps said he would decline a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am not comfortable with that vaccine,” he said. “That’s a personal choice I get to make.”
Two vaccines, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, came to market in December only after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewed clinical trial data from tens of thousands of people. Researchers gave half the participants a placebo, and measured infections or serious health complications from the placebo group against the experimental group. They found both vaccines were about 95% effective in preventing symptoms of COVID-19.
Now, with 37 million Americans having begun the vaccination process, both the FDA and the CDC track and review safety and “adverse event” data from recipients.
When asked if he reviewed the clinical data, Lipps responded that “there’s so much” but didn’t elaborate.
The government is not forcing anyone to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Gov. Mike DeWine and the state health director have both emphasized there are no plans to force anyone to take a vaccine.
Regardless, anti-vaccine activists and conservative lawmakers have stoked fears of a mandate. On Wednesday, Stephanie Stock, president of Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, an anti-vaccine group, warned lawmakers that Ohio could be “a signature away from an unchecked governor mandating vaccines for all.”
Rep. Nino Vitale, a GOP lawmaker and outspoken conspiracy theorist, warned in October of “mandatory COVID vaccinations launching in Ohio.” Other lawmakers have echoed the sentiment.
Members and leaders of HFO and OAMF deny they’re anti-vaccine and claim they only support “medical freedom.” However, this support takes the form of supporting legislation to weaken school immunization requirements or prohibiting employers from demanding employees take vaccines.
Earlier this week, activists demonstrated outside a vaccine clinic for Franklin County educators and staff. They handed out anti-vaccine propaganda outside the clinic warning against the vaccines. A QR code on the handout links to an HFO web page.
While vaccines benefit the recipient, the societal goal is for enough people in a community to receive their protection to produce what’s known as “herd immunity.” This occurs when enough people in a population are immune to a disease that it runs out of hosts and dies off. The herd immunity also protects certain people with medical contraindications that prevent them from receiving vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, has estimated herd immunity will occur when somewhere between 70% to 90% of the population receives the COVID-19 vaccine.
There are ominous signs ahead. In Ohio, about 60% of nursing home workers (one of the first groups to access the vaccine) declined it when they had the chance, according to DeWine. CDC research this week found only about 38% of nursing home workers nationwide accepted the vaccine in its first month of availability.
Monmouth University polling released Wednesday found barely half of 800 surveyed Americans would take the COVID-19 vaccine today if given the chance. About 1 in 4 said they’ll never take the vaccine, if they can avoid it.
Lipps’ continuing leadership of the committee is a clear victory for HFO.
“We are incredibly grateful for you,” said Michelle Christine, HFO’s president, on the April call. “We are grateful that you are a voice for all of us.”