Legislation containing a prohibition on vaccine passports, and reforms of state powers in a health emergency, is heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. A call to action has gone out encouraging citizens to encourage Abbott to sign the bill into law.
Since the Biden-Harris Administration’s announcement earlier this year they were working on creating vaccine passports, Texans for Vaccine Choice have been pushing legislators to follow Florida’s lead and protect individual rights from further government-overreach.
The fruit of their labor was realized when Senate Bill 968 by State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R–Brenham), and sponsored in the Texas House by State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R–Fort Worth), passed the House by a vote of 146-2 on May 26, with the Senate agreeing to House amendments just four days later.
“Mandatory public or private Vaccine Passports will now be prohibited in Texas through my SB 968 that is on its way to Gov. [Greg Abbott],” Kolkhorst stated on May 30.
The bill states “a governmental entity” in the state cannot create passports that “certify” someone’s vaccination status to others, or share that personal information, “for a purpose other than health care.” Businesses likewise cannot require customers to show such information, or they’d be denied state taxpayer funds. State agencies “may” also require businesses abide by this as a condition for their license or permit.
Businesses are still allowed to have COVID-19 “screening and infection control protocols” that line up with state and federal law.
SB 968 is similar to Florida’s Senate Bill 2006, which is their own ban on vaccine passports signed into law last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis, with two exceptions. While Texas’ SB 968 says state taxpayer funds may be denied and licenses or permits may be threatened, Florida’s SB 2006 says those who break the law face a maximum $5,000 fine per incident. DeSantis recently said he would enforce the law after a cruise line announced they would be requiring proof of vaccinations from customers.
Furthermore, SB 2006 also specifically states “an educational institution…may not” require proof of vaccination from students, while SB 968 doesn’t.
“Governor Abbott has repeatedly assured Texans that vaccines are always voluntary, never forced,” Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, posted on May 30. “Today the Texas Legislature reaffirmed his stance and the rights of Texans by passing Senate Bill 968.” She also praised “the heroic efforts” of Kolkhorst and Klick.
“We are excited for this legislation to be signed into law by our Governor and urge you to call him, thanking him for his support and asking him to sign this bill immediately,” she added.
Additional Provisions of the Bill
SB 968, as amended, also contains reforms to how the state addresses medical emergencies. “SB 968 seeks to ensure that Texas is better prepared for public health emergency or disaster,” Klick told the House.
A “public health emergency,” defined as when the health commissioner states there’s “an immediate threat” that “potentially” poses a threat of “severe illness” or “death” to the public, or “substantial risk of harmful exposure,” expires after 30 days. It can only be renewed by the legislature or the commissioner—with approval from the “designated legislative oversight board.” Each renewal cannot last more than 30 days.
It also creates the Office of the Chief Epidemiologist, to be appointed by the commissioner of the State Health and Human Services Commission. The Chief Epidemiologist would evaluate medical information, point out “pertinent” research and best practices, and could also serve as a consultant to state agencies.
Wellness checks on the medically fragile from first responders during an emergency would now be required, thanks to an amendment from State Rep. John Bucy III (D–Cedar Park). Furthermore, healthcare essential for a person’s mental or physical health—labeled as “nonelective medical procedures”—cannot be suspended by the Texas Medical Board (TMB). All other healthcare can be suspended for a maximum of 15 days, if it’s “reasonably necessary” to maintain resources for nonelective medical procedures. After 15 days, the TMB would have to decide whether or not to renew the suspension.
Those who don’t follow such suspensions will not face civil or criminal penalties. The health commissioner is also required to create an “expert panel” of “five physicians and four other health care providers” as advisors during the emergency. The panel is dissolved once the emergency is over.
During such an emergency, health care facilities that don’t provide required reports face maximum fines of $1,000 per incident, and the attorney general can also be brought in to collect civil penalties as well.
The bill also requires the state maintain reserves of personal protective equipment for “public health disasters,” made by a manufacturer in America “to the extent practicable.”
An amendment from State Rep. Lynn Stucky (R–Sanger) added that political subdivisions can’t restrict the real estate industry during a pandemic, while another from State Rep. R.D. Guerra (D–Mission) requires that, during a state or local disaster declaration, “educational material” about immunizations and where to get them be provided to schools, community centers, veterans hospitals, and local healthcare providers.
As SB 968 makes its way to Abbott, Schlegel encourages citizens to call him at (512) 463-2000. “Call Governor Abbott and ask him to sign Senate Bill 968 to ban vaccine passports in Texas,” she posted.