Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains)

The Tennessee Senate is continuing to debate the proper way to manage COVID-19 in the state. On Wednesday, the Health and Welfare Committee had 13 bills related to COVID-19 on the docket. 

One of the major debates was access to ivermectin, traditionally used for treatment of parasitic diseases in both people and animals, and now being used off-label for treatment of COVID-19, particularly in those who are opposed to vaccines. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no evidence that would lead the organization to recommend ivermectin’s use to treat COVID-19 at this time. 

Five of the 13 bills were brought by Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains). 

His first bill, SB 2188, was passed on to the Senate Calendar Committee by a vote of 7-1, meaning it is all but certain to be heard on the floor by the full Senate. The legislation would give pharmacists the power to give people ivermectin without a prescription, though the Board of Pharmacy would have to establish procedures including a risk assessment tool and a fact sheet for patients.

Dr. Denise Sibley of Johnson City, testifying before the committee, said that ivermectin is safe and that she would like to see Tennesseans have access to ivermectin in places other than Tractor Supply Company. 

“We typically don’t pass legislation that applies to one drug, one disease,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), who voted no on the bill. 

Consideration of Niceley’s remaining four bills, which included more access to ivermectin and forced dissemination of information from fringe medical group Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, was delayed for the time being.  

Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) was successful with her SB 1197, which passed 8-1 in the Health Committee and now is likely headed for the Senate floor. The legislation seeks to exempt churches from pandemic shutdowns, and she invoked the First Amendment, which guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. 

Yarbro, the one vote against Bowling’s legislation, expressed concern that laws passed now won’t be relevant in a future crisis that is different from COVID-19.

 “I fear that we may be making an exception that has broader implications than we intended,” he said.  

SB 2574, brought by Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), passed in committee 7-0 and is now likely headed to the Senate floor. It would require nursing homes and assisted living centers to allow at least one family member to visit residents in end-of-life circumstances.

SB 1982 from Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) looked to require businesses, schools and government entities with vaccine mandates to give exceptions to those who have had COVID-19 before. The legislation was met with much debate about the pressure it would put on businesses, plus disapproval from Gov. Bill Lee’s office, and the committee put off taking a vote on it. 

SB 1880, brought by Bowling, was voted down. It would have prohibited medical boards from taking action against a physician’s license based solely on their recommendations for treatment for a COVID-19 patient. 

SB 1884, also brought by Bowling, passed and is likely headed for the Senate floor. It would extend the sunset date on an existing law that prohibits COVID-19 vaccine mandates by governmental entities, schools and local education agencies.  

SB 2449 passed unanimously in committee. Sponsored by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), it was designed to close an unintended loophole that prevented discipline for health care providers for over-prescribing opioids.

SB 2185 brought by Page Walley (R-Bolivar) was not discussed. 

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