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Science & Medicine

Coronavirus: House GOP revives vaccine mandate bill, Indiana COVID-19 cases climb

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Justin Hicks
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Indiana reported 27,223 new cases in the last week, the highest since mid-September. (Justin Hicks/IPB News)

Indiana House Republicans sign on to legislation to effectively ban vaccine mandates from businesses. Indiana reports a single-day total of more than 6-thousand new cases for the first time since January. And the state passes more than 17,000 confirmed dead. 

THE DATA

Indiana reported 6,160 new cases on Wednesday, surpassing the peaks of the state’s late-summer surge driven by the delta variant. 

COVID-19 cases had trended down for six straight weeks after the peak of that surge. But for the last few weeks, cases started to pick back up, growing by 90 percent from the end of October to the week of Thanksgiving.

Indiana reported more than 27,000 new cases in the last week – the most reported since mid-September. It eclipsed 1.1 million confirmed cases on Tuesday, Nov. 30. 

And hospitalizations have also picked up. After hovering around 1,300 for a few weeks, the most recent census stands at 2,408.

The state also exceeded 17,000 confirmed dead last week, passing the grim milestone on Wednesday, Dec. 1. 

These deaths still trend younger than earlier in the pandemic. Before Aug. 1, fewer than 3 percent of deaths were Hoosiers younger than 50. But just since Aug. 1, that has grown to nearly 10 percent.

On a slightly brighter note: as of Friday’s dashboard update, 65,790 Hoosier 5- to 11-years-olds have received at least one dose of their COVID-19 vaccine

THE STATE RESPONSE

House GOP's top 2022 priority is stopping COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Indiana House Republicans have revealed their top priority for the 2022 legislative session. The House GOP caucus's 56 members signed on to a reintroduced bill that would effectively ban private companies from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Republicans initially planned to pass their bill last week, suspending all rules to approve the bill in a single day session. But the state’s top business and health care organizations loudly objected, prompting Republicans to back down.

But the House GOP still wants to push forward on the issue once lawmakers return in January for their regular session.

The reintroduced bill, HB 1001, is almost exactly the same, with a minor difference. Previously, it listed "pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy" as reasons to opt out of getting the vaccine. That’s been removed.

What laws say about religious exemptions and how Indiana lawmakers could change them

Companies across Indiana have voluntarily required worker vaccinations for months. And for some of their employees, religious exemptions look like the easiest way to avoid the mandate – even if it's not necessarily a tenet of their religion.

A complicated mix of federal rules and newly proposed state laws leave many companies wondering how to keep workers safe while honoring religious rights.

Micah Beckwith is a pastor in Noblesville and outspoken in conservative political circles. Earlier this year, he started getting messages from people looking for a way out of the COVID-19 vaccine when their work started voluntarily requiring it. 

"I'll spend an hour on the phone, every other day it seems like, with people who are just bawling, they're crying, they're just saying, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know where to turn,'" he said. "'And then I heard about you.'"

READ MORE: How is Indiana distributing COVID-19 vaccines? Here's what you need to know

Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on COVID-19 and other statewide issues.

So Beckwith helps them frame those beliefs as faith. He estimates he’s helped thousands of people craft letters requesting religious vaccine exemptions, supported by scripture from the Bible.

But how’s an employer supposed to handle those requests, even if it suspects a worker's religious belief isn't sincere? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says, when it comes to vaccines and religion, a company’s default policy should be to grant them. But it can ask workers some questions.

Holcomb says COVID-19 is 'going to be with us for a long time'

Gov. Eric Holcomb said he and other state officials are constantly monitoring the COVID-19 situation as concerns rise about the virus’s newest version, the omicron variant.

Holcomb said he thinks it’s settling in for people that COVID is “going to be with us for a long time.”

The governor wants to end the state’s public health emergency soon, as long as lawmakers deliver him administrative changes that will ensure Hoosiers don’t lose access to hundreds of millions in federal dollars. And he said the omicron variant doesn’t necessarily change that plan.

THE HEADLINES

Early Learning Indiana announces $1.7 million in grants to grow child care quality, capacity

Indiana's largest early learning nonprofit announced $1.7 million in grant awards Tuesday, aimed at closing care gaps across the state. 

Recipients include Appleseed Childhood Education in Jasper County, Scott County School District 2 and Henry County Child Care Network.

READ MORE: Indiana announces $540 million grant program aiming to stabilize child care industry 

The grant program is one of several that have been offered this year to help address long-standing issues in child care and support providers during the pandemic. 

Hoosier schools finalize teacher contracts, many with major pay raises

Many schools across Indiana have finalized major teacher pay raises in recent weeks, and while some schools have struggled to strike a deal, most reached agreements with their educators before the state's deadline.

Indiana lawmakers earmarked funding specifically for teacher pay raises during the 2021 legislative session. State leaders said they expected schools to funnel those dollars to teachers after protests across the state and country – and the pandemic increased the workloads of educators everywhere. 

Denny Costerison is the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. He said schools have had to be careful not to build temporary COVID-19 relief funding into their budgets for the long-term.

"How do we make sure that we use these dollars as they were intended to be used, and then secondly, that we don't get ourselves into some issues that would probably hit us in the future – that may be even two, three, four years down the road," he said.

Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.
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