During a work session Thursday, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee debated whether to ban the state from imposing vaccine mandates for the next five years. It split along party lines, ultimately recommending the bill should not pass. Screenshot from video

A bid to block the state from imposing any COVID-19 mandates for five years fell short in a legislative committee Thursday, almost certainly dooming its passage.

Rep. Sam Zagar Screenshot from video

“I do not think it is appropriate for us to hamstring medical professionals in the middle of a pandemic,” Sen. Joe Baldacci, a Democrat from Bangor, said.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-5 along party lines to oppose the measure sought by Republicans who questioned the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines that public health experts say have saved millions of lives worldwide.

Rep. Tracy Quint, a Republican from Hodgdon who sponsored the bill that got support from hundreds of Mainers at a public hearing last week, said her major concern is protecting the rights of parents and state workers who are worried because there are no long-term studies of the vaccine’s safety.

But Rep. Sam Zagar, a Portland Democrat who is a physician, said that one should look at the context in weighing the risks. In the middle of a pandemic that killed more than 850,000 Americans in the past two years is not the time to block possible mandates, he said.

Mandate opponents on the panel, which met remotely as part of the Legislature’s bid to stave off COVID-19 infections, repeatedly questioned the vaccine, including whether COVID-19 shots that most Mainers have gotten are even vaccines at all.

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“Is this truly a vaccine?” asked Rep. Kathy Javner, a Chester Republican, pointing out it doesn’t prevent people from getting COVID-19.

Rep. Anne Perry, a Democrat from Calais, said vaccines are never entirely effective. They offer protection against disease, she said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccines are “used to stimulate the body’s immune response against diseases.” It doesn’t define them as offering full protection.

Statistics in Maine and around the globe show, though, that COVID-19 vaccines offer those who have been immunized substantial protection against catching the disease and even more help in staving off severe cases of the disease. Only a small percentage of those who are on ventilators in hospitals with the disease are fully vaccinated and boosted.

Rep. Michael Lemelin Screenshot from video

Rep. Michael Lemelin, a Chelsea Republican, scoffed at the statistics. He insisted there is no proof that anyone has died from COVID-19. He said people have died “with COVID-19″ but not because of it.

There is no dispute that people with underlying health issues are more likely to die than others from COVID-19, but the notion that the disease isn’t killing people is untrue.

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The worldwide count from various governments has topped 5.5 million deaths from COVID-19 and the United States is likely to see its millionth death from the disease within weeks.

Those numbers are considered low. The Economist did a study that found that around the globe since the pandemic started, between 12 and 22 million more deaths occurred than would have been expected during the same period had the pandemic not happened, an issue explored this week in Nature.

The vaccine issue has been clouded by misinformation. At one point in the work session Thursday, Lemelin insisted that 671 people in Maine have died of no known cause within 28 days of receiving the vaccine. He called it “an eye-opener” that “should be investigated.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, head of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has said nobody has died from having had the vaccine in Maine.

Baldacci said he is “not a scientist” or a doctor and must leave room for experts to deal with the pandemic as best they can.

“We are trying to save peoples’ lives,” Baldacci said, and imposing a ban on mandated vaccines might put science in a straitjacket.

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Sen. Marianne Moore, a Calais Republican, questioned whether any other routine, mandated vaccines were ever rushed out the way COVID-19 has been.

Zagar and Perry said polio immunizations were hustled through in the 1950s. Today, polio is nearly wiped out, alive only in a couple of isolated pockets of the globe.

Javner said it is better “to err on the side of being very careful” by not imposing mandates.

“It should be a choice,” Lemelin said.

Baldacci noted that killing the bill wouldn’t ensure the existence of mandates. It just leaves the door open for them if that proves to be the wisest course to deal with the pandemic.

Voting to kill the bill were the panel’s co-chairs, Sen. Ned Claxton, an Auburn Democrat, and Rep. Michele Meyer, an Eliot Democrat; Sagar; Baldacci; Perry; Rep. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat; and Rep. Holly Stover, a Boothbay Democrat.

Favoring the bill outlawing mandates were Lemelin, Griffin, Javner, Moore and Rep. Jon Connor, a Lewiston Republican.

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