Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is threatening to sue the state’s newest medical school over its coronavirus vaccine policies after three students complained they’ve been retaliated against over their refusal to get the vaccine.
Landry sent a letter July 20 to administrators at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, known as VCOM, in Monroe, that accuses them of going down a “misguided path” by requiring students to receive a vaccine. It’s Landry’s latest move against coronavirus vaccine mandates across the state; he wrote to LSU officials in late May asking for a “written response from LSU that no vaccine mandates will be issued.”
There is an overwhelming consensus among medical providers that the shots are safe, effective and essential in cutting coronavirus cases and deaths.
Educational institutions across Louisiana have been grappling with whether they can — and should — mandate the vaccine ahead of the fall semester. While coronavirus cases in Louisiana were falling once vaccines became widely available this spring, infections are surging again this summer among the unvaccinated.
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So far, several private universities have announced plans to mandate the vaccine for the fall, including Tulane, Loyola, Dillard and Xavier. VCOM is also a private institution. But VCOM’s Louisiana branch is on the campus of the public University of Louisiana at Monroe, and the medical school has several agreements with the University of Louisiana system, including reserving some medical school interview spots for students from UL system campuses.
LSU announced Friday that the university will keep mask mandates in place, and that they believe state law prevents them from mandating the vaccine.
Landry’s letter to VCOM officials says that their “collaborative relationship” with the state means that VCOM cannot simply do as it pleases. He wrote that mandating COVID vaccines is “inconsistent with state and federal law in addition to being premature,” as the vaccines are still approved through an emergency use authorization rather than full Food and Drug Administration approval.
The distinction is an important one in terms of mandating vaccines. The chief executive of Louisiana’s largest hospital system, Ochsner, said this week that he is concerned about legal action being taken against it if Ochsner mandates that employees receive vaccines while they are still under emergency use authorization.
“We do anticipate moving to mandatory vaccines when it comes off (emergency use authorization),” said Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas.
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Landry sent a copy of his letter to VCOM to several officials, including UL System President Jim Henderson. Henderson said the guidance about emergency use authorization was instructive. He has not mandated the vaccine at UL campuses, but he said campus officials are doing whatever they can to encourage students to receive it. UL Lafayette, for example, recently unveiled incentives including free laptops, iPhones and campus parking.
UL officials say they are not confident in numbers of how many students on their campuses have received the coronavirus vaccine so far. LSU officials say that just 23% of their students have been vaccinated.
“Our focus is on getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” Henderson said. “You are in control of your own health and safety for the first time in this pandemic; vaccination is what protects you.”
Even once the vaccines receive full FDA approval, both Landry and the attorneys representing the VCOM students argue that the students still cannot be required to receive them. The students are being represented by Liberty Counsel, a Florida nonprofit known for its lawsuits on behalf of evangelical Christian organizations. The law firm has been in the national news frequently amid the pandemic while representing churches that were barred from holding in-person worship services during coronavirus lockdowns.
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Liberty Counsel also sent a letter to LSU’s School of Dentistry this spring after the school mandated coronavirus vaccines, calling the mandate a “violation of fundamental individual, economic and religious liberties.” Soon after, the dental school amended its policy.
In the case of VCOM, the Liberty Counsel attorneys claim that VCOM set up a “snitch” program targeting the students who would not get vaccinated, and that the students were subjected to discrimination by being required to wear masks until they provided proof of vaccination.
“No school may force or coerce anyone to take these injections, and certainly not when doing so violates sincerely held religious beliefs,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver in a statement.
VCOM officials did not return messages by phone or email for this story. Their Louisiana campus opened last summer with a class of 150 students, and VCOM also has campuses in Virginia, Alabama and South Carolina.
Most educational institutions in Louisiana require students to show proof of several vaccinations, including tetanus; measles, mumps and rubella; and meningitis for college students. But Landry argued in his letter that even those requirements go too far.
“Under Louisiana law, immunizations at colleges and universities are never mandatory if a student presents a written statement from a physician that a medical exemption is warranted or if a student presents a written ‘dissent from the student,’” Landry insisted.
The courts may take a different view: a federal judge in Texas last month dismissed a lawsuit from more than 100 hospital employees who challenged vaccination requirements at Houston Methodist Hospital. The judge ruled that the hospital was within its authority to mandate the vaccine, writing in his ruling that the hospital “is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer.”
Landry also argued that medical students — who are unlicensed and unable to practice medicine — have expertise in their field.
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“Surely some of these medical students already have more medical training than the lawyer with whom some of them spoke?” Landry wrote.
Throughout the pandemic, Landry has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and battled Gov. John Bel Edwards over coronavirus restrictions. His comments have come in direct contrast with doctors and public health officials; Ochsner noted this week that its hospitals have zero patients with vaccine complications, but more than 50 with complications from the virus.
Landry closed his letter by saying, “I will pursue all legal means available to ensure that the fundamental liberties of Louisiana citizens are protected from unfair, discriminatory policies.”