Tennessee has just passed a law declaring that the state must recognize natural immunity to the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) as having the same protective ability as the vaccines. But the state’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee refused to sign it.
“The immune protection gained from a prior COVID-19 infection is at least as protective against COVID-19 as a COVID-19 vaccine,” reads the text of the bill. “There is, therefore, no rational basis to treat individuals who have had a previous COVID-19 infection differently than individuals who have received a COVID-19 vaccine.”
The law was sponsored in the state’s House of Representatives by Republican Rep. Bud Hulsey and in the Senate by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley, who is a physician.
In the House, the bill passed by a vote of 66 to 20. In the Senate, the vote was 26 to 5. State legislators voted mostly along partisan lines.
The bill defines natural immunity as “an acquired specific immune system response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus [that is] acquired naturally as a result of an individual’s prior infection with SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
A person’s status of having natural immunity can be verified with a letter from a licensed physician or documentation from tests showing that a person has antibody, memory cell or T cell immunity against COVID-19.
The law also prevents any government entity or public educational agency or school from adopting or enforcing “a statute, ordinance, rule, policy or practice arising from COVID-19” that refuses to recognize amendments adopted by new state legislation. This includes mandates that do not recognize natural immunity.
The same stipulations apply to private businesses, which are not allowed to place measures that do not recognize acquired immunity “as providing a level of immune protection that is at least as protective as a COVID-19 vaccine.” Private entities are also not allowed to treat individuals with natural immunity differently than people who have received the vaccine.
Governor refuses to sign natural immunity law
The state’s natural immunity recognition bill became law without the signature of Lee.
In a letter addressed to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and State House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Lee wrote: “I write to inform you that I am letting SB 1982 / HB 1871 become law without my signature. Although I agree that individuals with acquired immunity should be treated the same as individuals who are vaccinated against COVID-19, this bill imposes a business mandate, and businesses should be allowed to operate without undue government interference.”
Eric Mayo, a legislative liaison and federal relations officer for the governor’s team, expressed similar concerns when the law was still working its way through the state legislature.
During an appearance at a Senate hearing on the bill, Mayo told senators that the governor was concerned about “businesses being put in the situation where they aren’t able to make the decisions best for their businesses.”
Lee’s decision to not show his support for the law is baffling given that he signed a sprawling state law last year that largely prevented state and local government entities and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.
With a Republican supermajority in the state legislature, Lee does not need to sign laws for them to become law. He has also not vetoed any bills while in office, but he has at times returned bills without signing them to express his concerns.