INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said Tuesday night that he would not support requiring residents to receive a COVID-19 vaccine once such immunizations become available.
The question of mandating such vaccines was asked during a debate among the Republican governor and his two election opponents as Indiana has continued to face steep increases in coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations stretching back to when Holcomb lifted nearly all of COVID-19 restrictions last month.
"It shouldn't be mandated but should be encouraged when it is safe," Holcomb said.
Holcomb has faced criticism from some conservatives around the state that he has exceeded his authority with a statewide mask mandate and executive orders such as the stay-at-home order he issued in March aimed at slowing the coronavirus spread.
Holcomb's stance comes even though Indiana law already requires 11 vaccines for public school students, including those for whooping cough, tetanus, measles and meningitis.
The governor said he wanted to make sure the vaccine can be quickly made available around the state.
"We want to make sure that we're ready to rock and roll when it does come to Indiana, getting it out to the front line, getting it out to the most vulnerable, getting it out to our schools and long-term care centers," Holcomb said.
Democratic challenger Woody Myers, a physician and former state health commissioner, didn't say whether he supported requiring a COVID-19 vaccine but said immunizations have been cost-effective life savers for many years. He said he hoped a coronavirus vaccine was available soon.
"We don't know the full side-effect profiles yet and we don't know all of those restrictions, but they are going to be coming," Myers said.
Some opponents of Holcomb's coronavirus actions have rallied around Libertarian Donald Rainwater, who has been firmly against the statewide mask mandate. He argued any vaccine will have side effects and health risks.
"It must be a citizen's responsibility to determine what level of risk they're willing to take, what level of risk they are willing to put their children under and government should not be involved in that decision," Rainwater said.
State health officials on Tuesday added 51 coronavirus-related deaths to Indiana's toll, which has reached 4,194, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus infections, since the state's first death was reported in mid-March. Indiana's number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has roughly doubled in the past month.
Tuesday's night debate came a week after the three candidates sparred over Holcomb's coronavirus orders and less than a week before Election Day, although at least 1.2 million votes have already cast with mail-in ballots or at early voting sites.
Holcomb has been able to keep up a front-runner campaign for a second four-year term with large advantages of name identification, fundraising and organization over Myers and Rainwater.
The hourlong debate was held with the three candidates and the moderator in separate areas of the WFYI-TV studio in Indianapolis because of COVID-19 precautions, according to organizers with the nonprofit Indiana Debate Commission.
Myers has argued that Holcomb shouldn't have lifted nearly all of COVID-19 restrictions last month and should impose a statewide mask mandate that includes possible penalties for violators. Rainwater, meanwhile, maintains the governor has exceeded his authority with executive orders that include the statewide mask mandate.
The candidates split during Tuesday's debate on the question of changing state laws that prohibit any possession or use of marijuana.
Myers said he supported allowing medical marijuana and removing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts. Rainwater called for complete legalization without any state regulation of marijuana sales.
Holcomb maintained his previous stance against any marijuana law changes as long as it is classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which means it's not accepted for medical use and has a high potential for abuse.
Holcomb said he didn't believe there was enough medical research into the effects of marijuana use, even though states such as Illinois and Michigan have already legalized its recreational use and Ohio permits medical marijuana.
"I'm very suspect about looking to legalize controlled substances for revenue reasons," Holcomb said. "I don't do things just because 34 other states have looked the other way and said we don't need federal approval, we'll break the law, in essence."
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb says he would not support mandatory COVID-19 vaccine