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Politics

Texts Between Ohio Lawmakers Show Support, Struggles Over Vaccine Mandate Ban

Supporters of House Bill 248, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester), show support for the bill before the House Health Committee held a hearing on it on August 24, 2021. It was an unusual event because the legislature is on a break, but Republican leaders said they wanted to hold the hearing so action could be taken when lawmakers return on September 14.
Jo Ingles
/
Ohio Public Radio
Supporters of House Bill 248, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester), show support for the bill before the House Health Committee held a hearing on it on August 24, 2021. It was an unusual event because the legislature is on a break, but Republican leaders said they wanted to hold the hearing so action could be taken when lawmakers return on September 14.

The bill that would ban all mandatory vaccines in Ohio brought the state into a harsh national spotlight, and made many people wonder where the proposal came from in the first place.

Now, text messages between the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the committee that’s hearing it are showing sometimes careful coordination on the controversial measure.

Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester) introduced House Bill 248 to the Ohio House Health Committee on May 18.

“We need to protect Ohioans from forced vaccination, whether it comes from the government, a school, an employer or even a local retailer. I am an advocate for informed choice," she said of her bill, which a Statehouse legislative analysis said would ban all mandatory vaccinations in Ohio – from childhood shots to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The committee that briefly returned from its summer recess to hold a hearing on the bill is chaired by Rep. Scott Lipps (R-Franklin). Public records have confirmed texts provided to the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau showed Lipps and Gross texted about the bill many times before that hearing and after it.

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Lipps has said he supports vaccines, but co-sponsored a bill last session that would require schools to inform parents of their vaccination exemption rights. He’s also been consulted by anti-vaccination groups such as Health Freedom Ohio.

Before that first hearing, Gross, who is a freshman legislator, texted Lipps that she has six co-sponsors for her bill. Lipps writes that he imagines it will be assigned to his committee but that he won’t co-sponsor it because it might show “how I may work the bill,” which he calls “this important piece of legislation to protect our freedoms.”

Lipps also said that keeping a ban on mandatory flu shots is important, saying it’s one of his “hotspots.”

Some texts seem emotional and even snippy.

Lipps appears angry at times, accusing Gross of not controlling rumors among anti-vaccination activists and of coordinating with former Rep. Candice Keller, a far-right Republican from Middletown, who’s made misleading statements about vaccines and has threatened to find a primary challenger to Lipps.

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On May 3, Lipps advises Gross that: “The last thing we need is the Speaker, or Leadership, digging their heels and listening to the Governor/media/hospitals.”

Gross apologizes to Lipps several times and writes in one text in May: “I adore you. And I am not lying to you and I tell you my very favorite chairman.”

The two coordinate messaging about the bill and witnesses, including Sherri Tenpenny, who Gross calls a “world-renowned physician” in a text on May 26. Two days later Lipps writes Tenpenny “sounds great” and will testify on June 8.

Tenpenny did, making some wildly false claims about COVID vaccines; that they "magnetize" people and that they "interface" with 5G cell towers.

Tenpenny, an osteopath from northeast Ohio whose website sells her anti-vaccine products, has been named one of the “Disinformation Dozen,” the 12 people behind about two-thirds of the false claims about COVID vaccines on social media. Tenpenny’s testimony in Ohio got national attention, and she was permanently suspended from Twitter not long afterward.

The following week in committee, Lipps read a prepared statement that he said was needed to clear up things about the committee process, which he said works when all opinions are heard – “most especially those that disagree with you.” For example, he said, one person testified to suffering an injury from a vaccine.

“Is her story to be ignored because Dr. Tenpenny got off the rails or made statements that you disagree with?” Lipps said.

It should be noted that testimony before committees is not fact-checked and there’s no requirement to provide sources or facts as backup.

Gross texted Lipps that day: “Do you want to talk about how today went?”

That was the last text in the documents provided.

Gross responded to Lipps’ comments in an interview for "The State of Ohio" in July.

“At any time, the chairman could have stopped the questioning and stopped the sensationalism, but he chose not to," Gross said.

When asked about Lipps' comments to the Ohio Capital Journal that Gross brought Tenpenny to the committee and Gross was "vehemently" supportive of Tenpenny's testimony, Gross replied, “No, that was not true.”

Gross said in the only call she says she’d returned about the texts that she should have done more research into Tenpenny, but that these weren’t the only text messages between her and Lipps.

She said she feels all voices have a right to be heard on the issue, but she maintains she’s not an anti-vaxxer, and she points the finger at Lipps and his relationships with the anti-vax groups. Gross also says it’s very challenging to work with Lipps, who is no longer her favorite chairman.

Lipps has not responded to a request for comment.

The bill would also ban so-called "vaccine passports." There's another bill that would also do that.

House leadership has said changes to the bill could happen when lawmakers return on September 14, and there could be a vote on it.

Gov. Mike DeWine has hinted he won't sign it if it passes. Earlier this year he did sign a bill banning mandates for vaccines that don't have full FDA approval, which includes two of the three COVID vaccines currently in use in the United States.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.