ROME CITY — A former Westview High School student and Rome City resident is the lead complainant on a lawsuit challenging Indiana University’s mandate that all students be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the 2021-22 school year or remain on advanced monitoring for the virus.
The lawsuit comes despite the student already receiving an exemption from the university from getting the vaccine.
The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court of Northern Indiana in Fort Wayne on Monday, represents the interests of eight students, led by Ryan Klaassen, an incoming sophomore at Indiana University.
“Plaintiff Ryan Klaassen is a resident of Noble County, Indiana, and an incoming sophomore at IU,” the lawsuit states.
Klaassen’s Facebook page lists Rome City as his hometown and that he attended Westview Jr./Sr. High School. The News Sun archive shows he frequently made the Westview honor roll during his time in Emma.
The lawsuit, which was filed by Terre Haute attorney James Bopp Jr., argues that vaccines cannot be mandated because they are currently only under emergency use authorization, the mandate is “contrary to modern medical ethics,” IU’s mandate runs contrary to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, some county recommendations and other public universities, that the mandate violates Indiana’s new law banning vaccine passports.
Indiana University is requiring all students and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the return to campus for the 2021-22 school year, or face potential disciplinary actions. The university is offering some narrow exemptions that would not apply to most attendees at the university.
Students who do not get a vaccine due to an exemption would still be required to undergo surveillance for the virus, including twice-weekly testing, mandatory quarantine if exposed to a COVID-positive student, a face mask requirement in public spaces and a mandatory return home if the campus has a serious outbreak of the virus.
IU, which previously was under fire from conservative groups, Republican lawmakers and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita for its vaccine mandate and requirement that students provide proof of vaccination, altered its program to de-emphasize the proof of vaccine as it might have run afoul of a new “vaccine passport” ban passed by lawmakers this spring, but left the requirement to get vaccinated in place.
Klaassen’s name is the lead complainant, which also includes seven other IU students including an Oklahoma music doctorate student; a Cook County, Illinois, student; and other Indiana residents from Jennings, Marion, Hamilton and Hendricks counties.
Klaassen’s name leads the suit despite IU already granting him an exemption from vaccination.
The lawsuit indicates that Klaassen has a “sincerely held religious objection to receiving a COVID vaccine” and that he sought and was granted a religious exemption. However, Klaassen further objects to the extra requirements of masking and testing in place for students granted exemptions.
“He objects to these extra requirements given their unreasonableness and the extremely minimal risk of COVID to those in his age group,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit argues that the vaccine cannot be mandated because all three currently in use in the U.S. — the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — are only in use due to Emergency Use Authorization and not a full approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have filed for full approval of their shots with the FDA, a process that’s expected to take several months to complete, but could be completed by the end of this year.
It’s unclear from the filing whether a full approval of one or more vaccines would render that argument moot.
“Contrary to the requirements imposed the general public [sic], no IU student is given option to accept or refuse the vaccine, it is mandated,” Bopp writes in the lawsuit.
In arguing the requirement of vaccination at the university, Bopp notes that the states allows for mandatory vaccination in school settings such as public K-12 schools and universities, but challenges that those vaccines are mandated for illnesses that “pose significant medical risk” and argues that COVID-19 does not fit that bill.
Indiana requires K-12 students be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, varicella (chickenpox), measles, mumps, rubella and meningitis.
“Here, the risk of serious morbidity and mortality from COVID for those under 30 are close to zero,” Bopp writes. “The known and unknown risks associated with COVID vaccines, particularly in those under 30, outweigh the risks to that population from the disease itself, by any rational measure.”
That last point is not backed by current statistics on the virus in Indiana.
Although serious illness and death are not common among people under 30, currently documented rates of death or other serious side effects as reported to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System that may be related to vaccines occur at percentage rates lower than known impacts of a COVID-19 infection in Indiana.
According to VAERS, in Indiana there has been one death reported to VAERS in relation to a COVID-19 vaccine in patients younger than 30, out of nearly 432,500 Hoosiers under age 30 have been fully vaccinated to date.
In comparison to known cases of COVID-19 in Indiana, there have been 40 deaths under age 30 in approximately 254,000 cases, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health.
The lawsuit filing also offers support for its premise that the “pandemic is virtually over” citing low case counts currently being seen in the state and nationally, and the ending of Indiana’s public health emergency declaration as of June 30.
Cases and other activity have hit their lowest points ever recently and been in decline throughout 2021 as vaccination rates have ticked up.
However, it’s unclear whether seasonality may also be playing a role in reduced activity right now on top of decreases aligned with increasing vaccination rates. COVID-19 activity lulled to lows in June, July and August 2020 during the warm weather months, after an initial surge in the spring, then rose to even greater heights in fall/winter 2020 with tens of thousands of new cases per week, days with more than 3,000 Hoosiers hospitalized and a monthly death toll greater than 2,500 in December 2020.
Bopp’s lawsuit provides a formula put forth by Dr. Peter McCullough, a cardiologist and frequent guest on conservative media outlets, on a method for estimating local immunity.
While consensus estimates suggest about 70% of the population would need to gain immunity to create wider communal protections, McCullough’s formula suggests Indiana has reached 125% threshold, which is greater than 100% because of some overlap between people who were previously infected and still got a vaccine.
But as Indiana still continues to see an average of 335 cases per day so far in June and almost all of those cases are occurring among non-vaccinated populations, it would suggest that McCullough’s formula is an inaccurate estimation of statewide immunity as non-immune Hoosiers are not currently enjoying a herd protection.
Indiana’s overall full vaccination rate among Hoosiers 12 and older sits at 47.2%.
Currently, approximately 54.3% of residents in Monroe County, which is the home of IU’s main Bloomington campus, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, making it one of the state’s more highly vaccinated counties.
Noble County’s countywide rate is significantly lower at only 34.9% fully vaccinated.
Bopp cites in his lawsuit that the positivity rate among those tested at IU on May 30 was 0%, although that date is approximately three weeks after the campus graduation date of May 8, during which most students would have returned home for the summer period.
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne and Monday’s filing of the complaint also came with a motion by Bopp to consolidate hearings for a preliminary injunction — which if granted would halt IU’s implementation of the vaccine mandate — with a trial on the merits of the complaint.
Attorneys also filed a request to expedite the case, due to university classes beginning on Aug. 15. The motion by Bopp suggested IU respond by June 28, with a hearing to be scheduled “as soon as the Court’s calendar will allow.”
As of Tuesday morning, the district court had not acted on the initial complaint or motions filed.
The case comes before U.S. District Judge Holly A. Brady — who received her undergraduate degree from Indiana University — and who was nominated to the bench first in April 2018 but was not confirmed at that time. Brady was renominated in January 2019 by former President Donald Trump for the Northern Indiana District Court judgeship and was then confirmed by the Senate 56-42. Her judicial commission began April 16, 2019.