John Bel Edwards on vaccine mandates: 6 things to know

Louisiana’s governor is reluctant to issue a vaccine mandate without full federal approval

By: - August 4, 2021 7:35 pm
Governor John Bel Edwards

Gov. John Bel Edwards at the Louisiana State Capitol in July of 2020.

Gov. John Bel Edwards repeatedly said Wednesday that he won’t be issuing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for the public sector — including for K-12 schools, universities and state employees — until a vaccine receives full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration and not just emergency use authorization.

“I do look forward to the day that full licensure is granted,” he said in an interview with Peter Kovacs, editor of The Advocate and The Times-Picayune newspapers, that was streamed online. 

Three vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — have approval from the federal government for use on an emergency basis. The FDA is expected to grant full authorization to the Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day, according to The New York Times.

Moderna has applied for full approval for its vaccine, though it’s not clear when that will happen. Johnson & Johnson has not submitted an application for full approval, but is expected to do so later this year, according to The New York Times. 

Louisiana is in the middle of its fourth and potentially worst COVID-19 surge. The state reported more people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday and Wednesday than it ever has during previous stages of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the reported number of deaths of people under 50 years old — 16 deaths — was higher than it ever has been.

The Delta variant of the novel coronavirus, experts say, is likely responsible for the virus’ newfound strength. But the vaccines protect well against both hospitalization and death. Vaccinated people are eight times less likely to get COVID-19 — and 25 times less likely to need hospital care even if they do, according to Louisiana’s Department of Health.

Here are some specifics regarding what Edwards said about vaccine mandates: 

No vaccine mandate for state employees until full federal approval 

The governor will not mandate the COVID-19 vaccination for Louisiana’s state employees until the federal government has granted full authorization for a vaccine, he said Wednesday.

The state government — with over 40,000 workers — is one of Louisiana’s largest employers.

Edwards has not said whether he will look at any other mitigation efforts for state employees — such as requiring those who have not been vaccinated to submit to regular COVID-19 testing. 

The Edwards administration has already shifted thousands of employees into “work from home” situations due to the fourth COVID-19 surge, according to The Advocate. But that’s not an option for all public workers. Notably, hundreds of correctional officers and state troopers — who make up a large percentage of state employees — cannot do their jobs remotely.

It’s unlikely there will be a vaccine mandate at public universities until full FDA approval

Edwards said he doesn’t expect public universities in Louisiana to require students and employees to get COVID-19 vaccines until one of the vaccines receives full federal approval.

He stressed that could happen as soon as Labor Day, though that is after universities return for the fall semester.

LSU, specifically, has been under significant pressure from faculty members in Baton Rouge to issue a vaccine mandate ahead of students returning to school, but the university so far has resisted calls to do so. 

University lawyers have claimed that LSU can’t issue a vaccine mandate because the current vaccines are all only authorized on an emergency basis, but members of Edwards’ administration in the health department have questioned whether that’s the case. Many of the state’s private universities are imposing a vaccine mandate on students and staff for the fall — and have gotten a waiver from the Louisiana Department of Health to do so. 

Edwards generally defended the university’s decision Wednesday. 

“I don’t have a problem currently with the legal advice that they are getting — whether it’s from the executive counsel there or from any outside counsel,” Edwards said, adding: “This is not just a legal matter. It is a policy decision.”

The governor said he would be leaving it up to the leaders of the individual public universities as to when they implement a vaccine mandate. Edwards appoints the members of the university system’s management boards, and those boards hire their own presidents and chancellors. 

Federal approval would put a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on the table for K-12 schools

Edwards suggested that full federal authorization of the Pfizer vaccine could lead to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in Louisiana’s K-12 schools. He said FDA approval would lead to COVID-19 vaccines going on the Louisiana Department of Health’s mandatory vaccine list — which dictates which inoculations are required for school.

“It would be my expectation that once full authorization — or licensure — is granted, then that vaccine will be added to the [Louisiana Department of Health] list and then it will work just like the current mumps, measles, rubella and other vaccines,” Edwards said.  

Edwards is supportive of Louisiana’s largest hospital mandating vaccines for staff

The governor supports the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady health care system’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for its employees.

The hospital system announced this week that it is giving its workers until the end of October or November, depending on their type of job, to be fully vaccinated.  It has facilities in Baton Rouge, Bogalusa, Lafayette, Monroe and Jackson, Miss.  

Otherwise, employees will face a pay cut or being laid off, according to The Advocate. Sixty-one percent of the hospital’s staff have been vaccinated. 

FMOL is the largest private business to require the vaccine in Louisiana so far, but Ochsner Health — the state’s largest health care provider — has said it plans to issue a COVID-19 vaccine mandate once a vaccine receives federal approval.

The governor believes private employers have more flexibility to mandate vaccines 

Edwards said private companies don’t face the same legal challenges in mandating the vaccine as public entities. Private companies could, in his opinion, require employees to be vaccinated much earlier. They don’t have to wait for full federal approval of a vaccine, Edwards said.

“What we know is that the constitution is not implicated when a private employer does it,” he said. 

Louisiana will not require a vaccine for large events — like Saints and LSU football games 

The governor made it clear that Louisiana is not interested in requiring proof of vaccination — sometimes referred to as a vaccine passport — for its large events. The state owns Louisiana’s largest entertainment venues — including Tiger Stadium, the Superdome and the Cajundome. 

“We’re not entertaining that here in Louisiana,” Edwards said when asked if a vaccine passport might be in play for Saints or LSU football games. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.