GOP candidates seize on decision about Covid-19 vaccines for children as a rallying cry for parental rights

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Republicans have whipped up anger within their base over pandemic restrictions, masking and school closures. Now weeks before the midterm election, high-profile GOP candidates are framing a new decision about Covid-19 vaccines for children as the next front in the battle over parental rights.

Republican Senate candidates like Adam Laxalt in Nevada and Blake Masters in Arizona, as well as GOP gubernatorial candidates in Michigan and Wisconsin, seized on Thursday’s unanimous vote by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s independent Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in favor of updates to the recommended immunization schedules in 2023, including Covid-19 vaccines for both children and adults.

The panel’s decision does not mean that the vaccines would be required for anyone — and at least 20 states have banned Covid-19 vaccines from being included in school mandates. The CDC advisory board members also emphasized that the decisions about what vaccines would be required for children in public schools are still determined by local control.

But that did not prevent some GOP Senate and gubernatorial contenders from quickly seizing on the decision to revive the debate over what they have cast as government overreach by Democrats, a topic intended to once again stir up fury among their core voters at a moment when campaigns are doing everything they can to boost voter turnout. Nearly all of them cited the decision as an incursion on parental rights, which has become a catch-all phrase that the GOP has used to galvanize its voters around a broad array of issues ranging from school curriculum to the discussion of gender identity in the classroom.

Laxalt suggested that the decision could lead to children being “forced” to get the vaccine and argued that “the fate of our children may have just been decided by 15 unelected bureaucrats on a Zoom call in a unanimous vote.”

“If Nevada decides to enforce this CDC guidance, this now means children could be forced to take this vaccine in order to attend school,” said Laxalt, who is vying against Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, in a statement. “When I am in the U.S. Senate, I will make sure parents have the choice to make these decisions.”

When asked about Laxalt’s comments and Cortez Masto’s position on whether Nevada school districts should mandate the Covid-19 vaccine for children, Lauren Wodarski, a spokesperson for Cortez Masto said, “This is an issue that is and should be decided at the local and state levels.”

Masters, who is challenging Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, responded to the panel’s vote by tweeting a video claiming that “the ‘experts’ are coming for our kids.” He too argued that the CDC advisory panel’s decision would lead to the vaccine becoming mandatory for kids.

Currently only California and the District of Columbia have said Covid-19 shots will be among mandated vaccinations for school children and those requirements were not put in place for this school year. Beyond that, all school immunization laws grant exemptions to children for specific medical reasons, and 44 states, as well as Washington, DC, also grant religious exemptions. Another 15 states allow philosophical or moral exemptions for children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In June, the US Food and Drug Administration expanded the authorizations for the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines to include children as young as six months. FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf said in a news release at the time that he expected that the vaccines for younger children would “provide protection from the most severe outcomes of Covid-19 such as hospitalization and death,” just as they do for older age groups. The CDC recommended the vaccines for children younger than six months later that month.

But as Masters took on so-called experts — a thinly veiled reference to Biden administration officials — he argued that they flip-flopped on the efficacy of masks during the pandemic, as well as orders to stay six feet apart, and claimed that the public had been misled about the extent to which vaccines would prevent infection from Covid-19. (The CDC has routinely advised the public that vaccines cannot prevent Covid-19 infections but that they can reduce the risk of severe illness or death).

“There’s been a lot of misinformation over the past couple of years—not from foreigners, or from Twitter anons, but from our own government, from the media, and from so-called experts,” Masters said in his Twitter video. Experts, he added, “expect to make every decision for you, then they expect to never, ever be held responsible for the results. They know that Joe Biden and Mark Kelly won’t hold them responsible for anything. Well look — when I’m in the Senate, when experts lie to us, they won’t get to keep giving us more orders to follow — they’ll be fired.”

Republican gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin and Michigan also quickly criticized the CDC advisory panel’s move — pledging that if elected they will block any potential maneuvers to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for students in public schools in their respective states.

Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels tweeted that he was already hearing concerns from parents: “The COVID vaccine is new and should not be treated like more established vaccines. When I’m governor, parents, not the State, will decide what’s best. We won’t mandate it for school attendance. Would (Democratic Gov. Tony) Evers?”

Evers said Friday that “there’s no mandate. There’s not going to be a mandate” for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Tudor Dixon, Michigan’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, who has harshly criticized her Democratic opponent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for what she viewed as overly onerous regulations for both businesses and schools during the pandemic, used the CDC advisory panel’s vote as a fresh opportunity to chide her opponent for her handling of Covid-19.

“Parents should be in charge of deciding if the COVID-19 vaccine is right for their child – not the CDC or Gretchen Whitmer’s bureaucrats,” Dixon said in a statement. “A Dixon Administration would fight this government overreach and move to ban Michigan schools from adding COVID-19 vaccines to the required list.”

The Michigan Republican has called Whitmer “the queen of lockdowns” on the campaign trail, holding stops at businesses adversely effected by Covid closures in the state, while Whitmer has fired back, warning if Dixon were governor during the pandemic, “thousands more people would’ve died.”

Like Laxalt and Masters, Dixon — who is backed by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — has centered her campaign in part on the concept of parental rights, borrowing a page from the playbook of Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who won his race last year by channeling the anger of frustrated parents in a state that Biden won by 10 points.

In a series of campaign stops last month, Dixon, flanked by parents’ groups, announced proposals to ban trans athletes from competing in school sports and to eliminate discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms — akin to legislation championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that opponents called the “Don’t Say Gay” law. She also called on the state education superintendent to resign, citing “pornography” in Michigan public schools. Democrats have argued that Dixon’s recent focus on those cultural issues is intended to distract voters from areas where her positions are unpopular — such as her opposition to abortion rights.

In her statement on Covid-19 vaccines for children, Dixon alleged that “liberal policymakers are pushing COVID-19 vaccines on our children and forcing parents out of the process, despite limited clinical evidence to support their claims. I stand with parents who are simply seeking the right to choose what works best for their child.”

Perhaps no Republican official up for reelection this year has done more to stymie the Biden administration’s efforts to vaccinate children against coronavirus than DeSantis.

In June, Florida was the only state that declined to work with the federal government to distribute vaccines for children after the FDA authorized emergency use. The DeSantis administration is also an outlier in not recommending the vaccine for healthy children. In March, the state Department of Health issued guidance to parents that children “may not benefit” from the vaccine, a position at odds with most of the greater medical community.

On Thursday, with cameras and reporters gathered for an update on Hurricane Ian recovery, DeSantis promised he would stand in the way of any requirement for children to get vaccinated to attend schools in Florida, though federal officials insist that is not their intent.

“As long as I’m around, as long as I’m kicking and screaming, there will be no COVID shot mandates for your kids,” DeSantis said. He doubled down on Friday morning, noting that he signed legislation that precludes any school from requiring students become vaccinated against Covid. He added he would not stand in the way of parents getting their kids vaccinated, saying, “It’s a free state. Parents can make the other decision if that’s what they want.”

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