(IIB Photo/Alex Brown)

Numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued Tuesday against a Republican proposal aimed at ending the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency and forcing broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements.

The proposed changes to state law faced criticism during a legislative committee hearing that it wrongly sends a message that the coronavirus pandemic is over at a time when Indiana’s infections and hospitalizations are rising again.

Republican House Majority Leader Matt Lehman presented the proposal as a step toward protecting individual rights by allowing workers to claim medical or religious exemptions if their employers required COVID-19 vaccinations.

That proposal includes three administrative actions sought last week by Governor Eric Holcomb that he said would allow him to end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency order that’s been in place since March 2020, but it goes further amid a national conservative pushback against President Joe Biden’s proposed vaccination mandates on large businesses.

Lehman said he believed the Republican-dominated legislature should act quickly to prevent workers from being fired as Democrats questioned why GOP leaders were trying to force it through with final votes set for Monday — nine days after the proposal was released on Saturday.

Representatives of the Indiana Medical Association, Indiana Hospital Association and other medical groups argued the proposal would discourage attempts to increase the state’s COVID vaccination rate and limit hospitalizations and deaths.

Indiana hospitals had about 1,700 COVID-19 patients admitted as of Sunday — a roughly 40% increase from two weeks earlier after declines from a summer surge peak of nearly 2,700 patients in September, according to the state health department.

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranking Indiana’s 50.5% rate of fully vaccinated people as the country’s 11th lowest vaccination mark, Holcomb disputed arguments that ending the state’s public health emergency order would signal that the pandemic’s risk had passed.

“I hope it sends the message that if you get vaccinated, the odds of you ending up in the hospital or worse go way down,” the Republican governor said Monday. “A large number of people in Indiana, across the country and world have done just that, and they’re avoiding dire consequences.”