TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed to block businesses from requiring customers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, but legislation he recently signed included a carve-out for the healthcare industry.
The measure crafted by DeSantis' Republican legislative allies exempted hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, ambulatory surgical centers, physician offices and ambulance providers, among many other health care providers.
Lobbyists for nursing homes, hospitals and physicians told The News Service of Florida they didn’t request the exemption and that the Legislature acted on its own.
But Mary Mayhew, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Hospital Association, called the exemption "obvious."
Mayhew, who formerly headed the state Agency for Health Care Administration under DeSantis, said hospitals need to know patients’ medical information, including COVID-19 history.
"Of course hospitals, just as we ask for other health care information, would want to ask about a highly infectious virus in order to inform care," said Mayhew, who added hospitals won’t deny care to people who aren’t vaccinated but take precautions instead.
Mayhew didn't want to speculate whether hospitals would ask visitors to show proof of vaccination or to show that they had recovered from COVID-19 before allowing them to visit patients.
COVID-19 aside, Mayhew said hospitals have long had to make tough decisions about visitor access in areas like intensive-care units where the sickest patients are treated.
The new law prohibits businesses, schools and governmental entities from requiring customers to document that they have had COVID-19 vaccinations or have recovered from the virus --- an issue that has become known as requiring COVID-19 vaccine "passports."
The state can levy $5,000 fines for violations of the law.
About 48 percent of the adult population in the United States is fully vaccinated, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Tuesday.
Florida’s vaccination rate among adults is just more than 44 percent, ranking 32nd in the nation.
COVID-19 passports were seen as a way to encourage people to get vaccinated in exchange for greater freedoms during the pandemic. But they have become a political hot potato.
Israel, where 75 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated, has been using COVID-19 passports for months. Additionally the European Union is on track to ensure that all its citizens and residents are provided free COVID-19 passports within the next month.
But Florida and other Republican-controlled states have moved to ban the use of the documents by arguing that they would be an intrusion into personal freedom. Alabama on Tuesday became the latest state to ban the use of passports. Conversely, New York was the first state to launch a passport, which it has dubbed the "Excelsior Pass."
DeSantis in March ripped the idea of businesses requiring customers to show proof of vaccination to be served. He then issued an executive order prohibiting passport use and subsequently urged the Legislature to make the ban permanent by passing legislation.
Lawmakers passed a measure (SB 2006) that included a passport ban, with DeSantis signing the bill on May 3.
But the law exempted 40 different types of health-care facilities overseen by the Agency for Health Care Administration and health-care practitioners licensed by the Florida Department of Health.
According to its website, AHCA licenses, certifies, regulates or provides exemptions from regulations to more than 48,000 facilities in the state.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health licensed, certified or regulated more than 95,000 practitioners during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the latest available data.
Also exempt from the passport prohibition are mental-health and substance-abuse service providers regulated by the Department of Children and Families, behavior analysis service providers certified by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and continuing care facilities regulated by the Department of Financial Services. Federally qualified health centers also are exempt.
Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health, medicine and pharmacy and senior associate dean at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said health care is big business in Florida.
"But it’s a special business," said Wolfson, who noted that unlike a movie theater or a restaurant, hospitals, physicians and other providers generally aren’t providing optional services.
"It’s a sensible inclusion in the bill," Wolfson said, adding, "it's a public health issue. They have to have the dialogue."
Justin Senior, chief executive officer of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said the exemption could allow hospitals and other health-care providers in the future to require staff to get vaccinated against the virus, something he said they are now hesitant to do because the vaccines only have emergency use authorization.
Senior said staff vaccination rates are often taken into consideration by Medicare, Medicaid or licensing and accrediting programs.
"I think when this thing does get final formal FDA approval, I think there are a lot of providers that will require their employees to get this," Senior said, referring to vaccines and the Food and Drug Administration.
But Jeff Scott, general counsel of the Florida Medical Association, said the COVID-19 passport ban precludes businesses from requesting documentation from their "patrons or customers."
The ban also prevents schools from requiring the documents from students or residents and government from requiring documentation from patrons.
"It doesn’t talk about employee-employer relationships," Scott said of the prohibition.