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Ray Carter | December 7, 2021

Stitt: Oklahoma will continue ‘winning’ vaccine-mandate fight

Ray Carter

The Biden administration has tried to make COVID vaccination a condition of employment via multiple regulatory efforts. Oklahoma has initiated or joined legal efforts to combat them all.

During a press conference, Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said the state will continue pushing back against federal overreach and also vowed to stand up for Oklahomans whose religious freedoms are infringed upon by private businesses’ vaccine mandates.

“President Biden’s administration does not believe in personal responsibilities. President Biden doesn’t trust Americans to make decisions for themselves,” Stitt said. “Luckily, our Constitution does.”

The governor noted the Biden administration has tried to make COVID vaccination a condition of employment for all workers at businesses with more than 100 employees, all federal employees, all National Guard members, all health care workers, and all employees working at companies that receive federal contracts.

“We are suing to block every single one of these,” Stitt said, “and we’re winning in court every step of the way.”

Lawsuits challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates have already resulted in courts enjoining their enforcement.

“Pandemic does not mean we put the Constitution in a box in the attic.” —Attorney General John O’Connor

Several speakers at the press conference, including Stitt and O’Connor, noted they have personally been vaccinated, but said other Oklahomans should have a choice and noted many individuals have legitimate reasons to not get vaccinated, including medical and religious objections and robust natural immunity from prior COVID infection.

“My problem is not with the vaccine. My problem is with the notion of it being mandated,” O’Connor said. “I also have a problem with the use of our paychecks as the tool or weapon against our employees, our good Oklahomans. And I have a problem with the federal government using our good employers to do the dirty work for the Biden administration.”

“The decision to take a COVID vaccine should be made by Oklahomans and their doctors, not their bosses and certainly not the federal government,” Stitt said. “Here’s the truth: One-size-fits-all, it doesn’t work. Period.”

Vaccine Mandate Reducing Workforce, Public Safety

Officials at the press conference warned that the COVID vaccine mandate will reduce the number of available workers in numerous industries as employees choose to leave a job rather than submit to the mandate, including at health-care facilities. Workforce shortages are already a concern in many industries, contributing to rising inflation and a shortage of goods and services, officials noted.

“These health care workers have been treating our people since February of 2020,” O’Connor said. “Now, all of a sudden it’s a health care problem? And I can tell you right now with the number of people we’re going to lose in Oklahoma in our health care services, it’s going to be a public health care crisis. So it’s going to have the opposite effect of what the president has intended.”

Caroline Swink, a registered nurse at Stillwater Medical Center with 25 years’ experience, said the federal mandate will force health care entities to fire unvaccinated staff, “putting patients at risk for low staffing and inadequate care.”

“There are many people within the medical field who have done their own research and are against the federal mandate and refuse this COVID-19 vaccine,” Swink said.

Among the concerns cited by medical professionals is the lack of public data on the vaccine, Swink said, noting that one pharmaceutical company is seeking to keep that information shielded for more than five decades.

“If these people walk out and leave, you won’t even be able to get your surgery because there won’t be staffing for them to allow to schedule a surgery,” Swink said.

Dana Weber, CEO of Webco Industries, said many of Webco’s 1,300 employees are in rural areas and a significant share have opted not to pursue vaccination.

The company has educated workers on COVID vaccines and provided incentives to encourage vaccination, but Weber estimated up to 20 percent of Webco’s workforce would either quit or choose weekly testing if the mandate is enforced. She said the cost of weekly testing would be substantial and financially harmful to the business.

“Right now, we have trouble finding good, quality employees,” Weber said. “Many of these are really great employees. We do not want to lose them. They are highly qualified. Many are long-term employees, and we believe in protecting their right to make a choice.”

She praised Stitt and O’Connor for opposing the federal mandates.

“We believe the federal government does not know what’s best for us out here in Oklahoma, particularly in the rural parts of Oklahoma,” Weber said. “And we believe that our employees need the right to make that decision for themselves.”

Private Businesses Also Warned

Stitt said private employers are free to require vaccination in the workplace without government mandates, but warned private employers that they may run into serious legal problems if they do not readily grant exemptions.

“I think it’s an employment-law issue,” Stitt said. “I think they’re violating some religious liberties. I encourage all Oklahoma businesses to give those religious and personal exemptions. Here’s the truth: I have people call my office all the time and for whatever reason there’s a medical issue that they can’t take this (vaccine) or maybe there’s a religious reason that they don’t want to.”

The state has already sued Ascension Healthcare because that health care employer was reportedly denying religious exemptions to workers. A temporary restraining order is now in effect.

“We are not going to have a situation where people are discriminated against, at the cost of their paychecks, based upon their religious beliefs,” O’Connor said.

Among the religious objections cited by some workers is the reported use of an aborted fetus in developing one COVID vaccine.

O’Connor said he’s been told the Ascension lawsuit and resulting restraining order has resulted in other health care providers “actively” granting religious-exemption requests.

“We’ve saved a number of jobs of good Oklahomans—again, health care professionals—who should never have been put in a position where they were having to sacrifice their religious beliefs or sacrifice their paycheck,” O’Connor said.

Legislative Response

Stitt and O’Connor drew praise from one legislative leader following the press conference, while a Democratic leader condemned their actions.

Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, praised Stitt and O’Connor “for leading our state’s legal efforts to stop President Biden’s vaccine mandates.”

“It is the right move in the right venue, and we are prevailing in court,” Treat said. “The effort to protect the sovereignty and power of the states will be led by Oklahoma and other freedom-loving states. Oklahoma is fighting and winning against this egregious federal overreach, just as we promised to do. The Tenth Amendment reserves authority not specifically granted to the federal government to the states, and I am confident Oklahoma will prevail in this legal fight and further solidify federalism and separation of powers.”

But Assistant Democratic Minority Leader Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, condemned the governor and attorney general in a tweet.

“The Governor doesn’t trust Oklahomans to make healthcare decisions (‘I’ll sign any abortion bill that hits my desk’) so this isn’t about that,” Bennett wrote. “It’s about trying to start a fight with the president to further his political ambitions & he’s using your tax dollars to do it.”

Trends Undermine Call for Mandates

Throughout the pandemic, Stitt noted that all states have experienced COVID surges regardless of the existence of state mandates and restrictions or the lack of those measures. He noted that pattern is holding true when it comes to vaccination rates as well.

“Vermont has the highest vaccination rate in the entire country,” Stitt said. “And they have more than three-and-a-half times the number of cases, per capita, than we do here in the state of Oklahoma.”

While many COVID government mandates have created economic and social harm for citizens, they have failed at impeding viral spread because they are too often based on the flawed belief that government can eliminate a virus, the governor said.

“It’s not possible to have zero cases in our state,” Stitt said. “This is a virus and something that we’re having to learn to live with. And we can’t let the president or anyone tell us that cutting back on freedom is the way to solve this problem. Our freedom is what makes this nation so special.”

O’Connor echoed that assessment.

“Pandemic does not mean we put the Constitution in a box in the attic,” O’Connor said. “We’re a rule-of-law nation and we have rights under the Constitution, and those rights really are alive even throughout a pandemic.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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