SAN FRANCISCO — Against the backdrop of an unprecedented national measles outbreak, California lawmakers are weighing new legislation aimed at cracking down on vaccination exemptions.
On Thursday, Senate Bill 276 goes before the state’s Assembly Health Committee before likely moving on to a full Assembly vote and, ultimately, the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Earlier this week, he expressed concerns that led to amendments to the bill, narrowing its focus.
The vote comes at a time of heightened concern about both exposure to once eradicated diseases, as well as the potential side-effects of vaccinations on young children.
While a chorus of “anti-vax” voices has been growing across the country, California residents appear largely in the pro-vaccination camp. The state already is one of the nation’s toughest when it comes to avoiding vaccinations.
A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll shows 75% of respondents said parents should vaccinate their children, and 80% are concerned that a U.S. outbreak of nearly 1,000 measles cases, the largest in more than 25 years, will continue to spread. At least 52 of those cases were reported in California.
As amended, the bill is now less specific about what qualifies for an exemption, and considers family medical history as part of the evaluation process. Exemptions typically are granted if a patient has an autoimmune disease or cancer, which may be adversely affected by a vaccine.
Originally, the bill allowed the state's health department to review and even reject any medical exemption, but as rewritten allows for such reviews only at schools where immunization rates fall below 95%.
Those supporting SB 276 are concerned about the rapid jump in vaccine exemptions across the state since SB 277 went into effect in 2015 — that law ended exemptions based on religious beliefs.
A recent California Healthline survey indicates exemptions for kindergartners in the state have jumped to 4,812 in 2018-2019 from 931 in 2015-2016. (Exemptions for religious beliefs were at 16,817 in 2013-2014, and are at zero now.)
Laws similar to SB 277 are on the books in Maine, Washington and New York. Most recently, the Board of Health in Nashville, Tennessee has expressed an interest in eliminating the exemption based on religion.
On Tuesday, Newsom said the amendments to SB 276 "will make it workable and addressed some of my bureaucratic anxieties."
But while supporters of the bill are buoyed by the governor’s intention of signing the bill — especially after he expressed concern about government overreach earlier this month — opponents warn that it puts a bureaucrat between parents and doctors.
“The media hype tends to immediately make these issues about vaccination versus anti-vaccination groups, but that’s not where I’m at,” says Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), who is critical of the bill. “I care about keeping the government out of this decision-making process.”
A number of high-profile newsmakers have added their voices to the fight against SB 276, including actress Jessica Biel, who has said she is not anti-vaccines but supports the rights of families to choose, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has called vaccines “a holocaust,” drawing fire from his own family members.