Lawmakers will hold a remote public hearing Tuesday on a bill that would prohibit COVID-19 vaccination mandates for five years.

The bill says the time is needed to conduct additional research on potential fertility problems from the vaccines, even though health experts say studies have found no such problems.

“There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems (problems trying to get pregnant) in women or men,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends vaccinations for women who are trying to get pregnant or might become pregnant in the future.

Vaccines have been proven to reduce the severity of illness in people with COVID-19, including those infected by the omicron variant. The majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19, and vast majority of those in intensive care, have been unvaccinated.

The bill is unlikely to advance in the Legislature – Democrats control both chambers and the Blaine House. But it will give Republicans and their supporters an opportunity to amplify a chief talking point in former Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign to unseat Gov. Janet Mills this fall.

LePage and Republicans have blamed vaccine mandates for the ongoing shortage of hospital workers, despite the fact that the health care industry has been struggling with staffing shortages for years, and some of the state’s largest hospitals have said up to 98 percent of their workers got vaccinated and remained on the job.

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Republicans also have been fighting vaccine mandates nationwide. Ten states have banned vaccine mandates for state workers, six have banned mandates for health care workers and two have banned them for private employers, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

Lawsuits challenging President Biden’s federal vaccine mandates are being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule soon. Justices seemed to support requiring vaccinations for health care workers, but were more skeptical of mandates for other large employers, The Associated Press reported.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee will hold Tuesday’s public hearing remotely because of the pandemic. As of Monday, it already had received about 60 pieces of written testimony, mostly in support of the bill.

Supporters include health care workers who say they lost their jobs because of the vaccine mandate. Others are opposed to vaccine mandates in general, and others blame the vaccine for health problems or say the vaccine has killed children, a false claim that has circulated on social media.

The bill consists of one sentence: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, mandatory vaccinations for coronavirus disease 2019, which is also known as COVID-19, are prohibited for 5 years from the date of a vaccine’s first emergency use authorization by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration in order to allow for safety testing and investigations into reproductive harm.”

The first emergency use authorization came in December 2020, which is apparently when the moratorium would begin retroactively.

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The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracey Quint, R-Hodgdon, did not respond to a phone call and email requesting an interview Monday.

But Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, one of four co-sponsors, said he supports the bill because medical decisions are best left to doctors and their patients, rather than the government. He said people have legitimate questions about vaccine safety beyond reproductive harm.

“Philosophically, I’m opposed to any kind of mandate,” Stewart said, stressing that he is not against vaccinations generally, nor does he deny the ongoing pandemic. “I think there are questions that can and should be asked” about vaccine safety.

Stewart accused Democratic leadership in Maine for slow-walking the bill. He said the bill was submitted in December 2020, before vaccine mandates were being discussed, and only now – 13 months later – is getting a public hearing.

Stewart acknowledged the bill is too late to prevent the health care worker vaccine mandate that took effect in October. But he said it is still relevant for future health care workers and other possible mandates.

Medical professionals in Maine have expressed support for the vaccine mandate for health care workers. And two other health care groups are urging lawmakers to oppose the bill. Opponents fear it could prevent private organizations, such as restaurants or concert venues, from requiring proof of vaccination, in addition to blocking any new government mandates.

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Becky Christensen, campaign director for the Safe Communities Coalition, a nonprofit pro-science advocacy group, said the bill is “based on fear and misinformation and obstructs the ability of our hospitals and long-term care facilities to protect our most vulnerable citizens from a contagious and deadly disease.”

Vaccines are one of the most important tools to “safely come through the devastation of this pandemic,” Christensen said in written testimony. “Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in our history. There is no logical or scientific basis for L.D. 867, which panders to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and undermines our collective progress in protecting our children and families from deadly diseases.”

The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network issued a statement Monday saying that prohibiting vaccine mandates would put people with chronic illnesses at risk.

“Vaccine requirements help protect immunocompromised patients, including kids, and blocking businesses and organizations as well as cities and towns from enacting these policies jeopardizes the health of patients and silences their voices,” Maine Director Hilary Schneider said in a news release.

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