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DeSantis repeals the state surgeon general's power to mandate vaccines

Pictured here is the old and new Florida Capitol building.
Rebecca Blackwell
AP Photo
The old Florida Capitol building is seen, with the new Capitol building tower rising behind, during a special legislative session targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida lawmakers on Monday began debating a package of bills to combat coronavirus vaccine mandates, continuing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' fight against virus rules.

Florida's surgeon general can no longer mandate vaccines under a new law passed this week. No surgeon general in Florida has used that authority since the state legislature approved it in 2002.

Henning Jacobson might not be someone you're familiar with. But his refusal to get a smallpox vaccine in the early 1900s set off a series of events that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states have the right to mandate vaccines. During Jacobson's time, smallpox was deadly.

"It's contagious. It disfigures," Arlesia Mathis says. She's an associate professor of public health policy at Florida A & M University. Mathis says smallpox was eradicated worldwide due to vaccinations.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Jacobson's case still has effect today. Ally Chamberlin is Junior Staff Editor with the University of Miami Law Review. She says the ruling puts the power of vaccine mandates in state lawmakers' hands.

"It is for the House and the Senate to pass laws that either explicitly mandate or give someone in the position of like what we're dealing with here, the surgeon general, to mandate a vaccination if he sees fit," Chamberlin says.

And in 2002, Florida lawmakers gave the state surgeon general the authority to mandate vaccines under a declared public health emergency. Under that law, the surgeon general could only order a person to be vaccinated if they posed a danger to the public health, and there were no practical methods to isolate or quarantine them. Rep. Nicholas Duran (D-Miami) says it's important to remember why lawmakers gave the surgeon general that power more than two decades ago.

"This was passed back in 2002 post-9/11 when people were receiving envelopes of anthrax, and so they needed tools in order to take on what was a potential emergency that would kill Americans," Duran says.

While signing the new law repealing the surgeon general's power, Gov. Ron DeSantis called the 2002 law antiquated and not appropriate for the state. And Republican lawmakers like Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) argue the authority to mandate vaccines is too great.

"The key terms is it is immediately enforceable by law enforcement. So to bring in law enforcement to vaccinate people to me is a bridge too far, and so to remove the word vaccinate—I think is important to make sure that everybody has their own choice," Bean says.

Bean says the surgeon general still has tools to protect people.

"We still give authority to our surgeon general to isolate and quarantine. If somebody's already infected with a disease that could prove harm, then they still have the power to safeguard the public," Bean says.

But Democrats are calling out the measure as politically motivated. Rep. Duran says that's evidenced by only removing the surgeon general's vaccine authority.

"I don't see what the emergency is. Why can't we take care of this during regular session? But we are here, spending a scheduled, what was a scheduled committee week, to do something because a word is a politically hot topic word right now," Duran says.

Fellow Rep. Michele Rayner (D-St. Petersburg) agrees.

"It's an election cycle year, and folks want to get re-elected or elected to another office, and I think that it's troublesome to me to use the weight of the legislature to do that," Rayner says.

Ally Chamberlin, the law review editor from before, says the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Jacobson case means state lawmakers can take away vaccine mandate authority and give it to someone else.

"Who they maybe think is more fit to act in that situation," Chamberlin says.

Chamberlin says lawmakers can also pass bills that mandate vaccines. But that's unlikely to happen in Florida because Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.