California Lawmakers Pass Some of Nation's Strictest Vaccine Requirements

by | June 25, 2015

By Melody Gutierrez

A controversial proposal that would make California one of the strictest states in the country in requiring school vaccinations passed a critical vote Thursday, moving the bill one step closer to landing on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

The Assembly passed SB277 on a 46-31 vote that sends the bill back to the Senate as soon as Monday to confirm recent amendments. SB277 would eliminate a broad waiver that allows parents to opt their children out of required vaccinations for school and day care based on personal or religious beliefs.

The Senate passed the vaccine bill with four votes to spare in May. If passed there again, SB277 will head to Brown, who previously has said he would "strongly consider" it if it reaches his desk. Bill author Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said he was in talks with the administration as the bill moved forward.

"We've had some very positive conversations," said Pan, who is a pediatrician. "The governor is a very thoughtful man who understands how important it is to protect the public."

Under current law, California requires children at both public and private schools and day cares to receive immunizations against 10 diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, chicken pox and diphtheria, before entering kindergarten. A booster shot for whooping cough is required in seventh grade.

Public health officials say that the vaccination requirement protects the public against outbreaks. They say vaccination rates must be at least 90 percent to protect those who can't be immunized due to their age or health.

Opt-out for parents

While California requires the vaccinations, the state also allows parents to opt out for any reason under a personal belief exemption, which includes religious objections.

Under SB277, students who are not vaccinated would have to be homeschooled or participate in off-campus independent study programs. Doctors would still be allowed to approve medical exemptions for children who cannot be safely vaccinated as well as conditional admissions for those who intend to have their children vaccinated, but are not up to date at the time of enrolling in public or private school or day care.

"It's been an intense journey legislatively," said Pan. "Ultimately, the important thing is that we pass a law and work with people to effectively implement it. I encourage my colleagues in the medical community and the education community to educate people about what the bill actually does because the opponents have spread so much misinformation and continue to spread so much misinformation about what the bill does."

SB277 would take California from being one of the more lenient states in the country on school vaccination requirements to one of the most strict by not allowing personal or religious exemptions. Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that do not allow personal or religious exemptions, instead allowing a child to skip immunizations only if a doctor issues a medical waiver.

"SB277 has probably received more public testimony than any other issue this year, including the state budget," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael. "For me, the bottom line is we live in a society where we have a social responsibility to act in a manner that protects not only ourselves but others as well."

Vocal opposition

The vote comes after months of increased lobbying by a vocal opposition group, which has staged rallies across the state and whose members have stood for hours to log their concerns during Capitol hearings. Opposition to the bill has united diverse groups -- including stay-at-home moms, antigovernment activists, Hollywood actresses and the Nation of Islam, which warned black lawmakers that they would face backlash if they voted for the vaccine mandate.

"We have strange bedfellows, now don't we?" said Lori Martin Gregory, editor of the blog Mom Street Journal. Gregory attended Thursday's opposition rally outside the Capitol. "We have Malibu Barbie next to the Nation of Islam. People look at that and go 'Huh?' We have some differences, we don't agree on everything in life, but clearly we have common ground on this issue because it's the right thing. It's truth. There should never be a public policy that protects some of the people at the expense of others."

Opposition to the bill included comprehensive social media campaigns, emotional pleas and threats. Pan reported to police he received a death threat while the bill's co-author, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, reported that a death threat had been made to a staff member. Several other lawmakers voting on the bill said they were hounded by calls and e-mails, some taking a threatening tone.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale (Los Angeles County), said some opponents have used questionable tactics in expressing their concern, but that the behavior doesn't discount the fact that there are many issues with the bill.

"Those who are at risk for contracting disease can still be exposed by riding on an airplane or going to the doctor; therefore, the state using it to infringe on the rights of certain students to attend school doesn't make sense," Gatto said.

In all, five Democrats in the Assembly voted against the bill, three Democrats did not vote and two Republicans supported SB277.

Several amendments were added to the bill as it made its way through the legislative process. One amendment states that special education students will still receive all of the services agreed to in an Individualized Education Program. Opponents have argued that medical exemptions are difficult to obtain, particularly for a sibling of a child who suffered a severe reaction, so lawmakers added language into the bill that doctors can consider family history of adverse reactions when considering whether to grant a waiver.

Another amendment would allow parents to use personal belief exemptions for any new vaccine added to the list of required immunizations. Students currently enrolled with a personal-belief exemption would not be required to provide proof of vaccination until regular immunization checks that occur in kindergarten and seventh grade or when enrolling in a new school.

Measles outbreak

Pan and Allen introduced the bill in response to a measles outbreak in December that started at Disneyland and infected more than 100 people in California and spread to other states by the time it was over.

"It's important to remember this isn't just about the case at Disneyland, which by the way I think is enough of a reason to vote yes," said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, who voted in favor of the bill. "This is also about the situation that happened just this past spring in my district with a resident in Lafayette who had the measles and got on BART."

Baker said she's heard from some colleagues that California should wait for a public health crisis to act.

"Do you hear how unreasonable that argument is?" Baker asked.

(c)2015 the San Francisco Chronicle