Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of a law mandating routine vaccinations for most children enrolling in schools has not settled the controversy over childhood immunizations.
The governor on Tuesday signed SB 277 into law effective July 1, 2016. It eliminates the personal or religious belief exemptions that currently allow students to forgo shots that protect against communicable diseases.
Now, only students abstaining for medical reasons with a doctor’s approval will be able to avoid vaccinations prior to entering public or private school for the first time or in seventh grade.
Numerous polls over several years have shown that Americans overwhelmingly agree that a broad program of vaccinations is essential to public health.
Sue Kelley is one such supporter. Emerging Tuesday from a southwest Bakersfield Chuck E. Cheese’s with her daughter and young grandchildren, Kelley, 59, welcomed the new law.
“I think they should all be vaccinated,” she said. “I don’t want my grandchildren to encounter any of these diseases they vaccinated against at school. It’s about the safety of the kids.”
But Beverly Wetterholm, 56, said she handled immunizations for each of her four children differently “depending on how much I knew and how I was feeling at the time.” Wetterholm is grateful that she had options, and doesn’t want other parents to be denied that freedom.
“I’m really against forced immunizations,” Wetterholm said. “Now, some families are going to have to home school, and not everybody is in a position to do that.”
Wetterholm’s take on the new law is common enough that public school officials will have to consider the likelihood that they’ll have new defections. Parental opt-outs were already occurring statewide.
The Kern County Department of Public Health Services has long advocated for childhood vaccinations and officials were pleased the governor signed the bill despite pressure from anti-vaccination and parents’ rights activists..
There wasn’t a single case of measles in Kern County during an outbreak over the winter that bedeviled many other areas, and that’s a direct result of Kern’s roughly 93 percent vaccination coverage, said Denise Smith, public health’s director of disease control.
“We’re fortunate that our vaccination rate is pretty good, and this new law will push it up a few percentage points,” she said. “When we have high vaccination within our schools, that not only protects the healthy kids, it also protects the children who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, and it protects the younger siblings at home who haven’t been vaccinated because they’re too young.”
State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, introduced SB 277 after an outbreak traced to Disney theme parks in December spread to a half-dozen U.S. states, Mexico and Canada. It sickened 147 people nationwide, including 131 Californians.
No one got sick in Kern County, but there was a close call — a public health warning that someone later found to be infected with measles had visited a fast-food restaurant in Delano.
Preventing spread of disease
Omni Health Chief Operations Officer Diego Martiniz said the new law will help prevent a pandemic and the spread of diseases that have not been seen in years.
“Respecting the personal belief of a person, when exposing others to that decision and the possibility of spreading a preventable disease, is not something prudent,” he said.
“Vaccinations have been around since the 1800s with a proven prevention record of the spread of disease. What we saw with the measles outbreak was just a small indication of what can happen when the basics of inoculation are ignored and, even worse, when resistance develops.”
Some parents agree with that and have chosen to vaccinate personally, but they don’t like the idea of the decision being taken out of their hands.
“There are benefits to immunization, and I understand that,” said Jillian Morgan, 29, “But I think it would be wrong to force a parent, because everyone’s circumstances are different.
Like with my 3-year-old, he got such an extreme reaction, with really high fevers, so we had to spread them out a little with him, and not having the flexibility to do that, that’s scary.”
‘Impose a consequence’
Leah Russin, a 40-year-old Palo Alto mother of two and co-founder of the advocacy group Vaccinate California, said the law doesn’t force anyone to do anything they don’t want to. “
It’s not taking away anyone’s rights,” she said. “If somebody wants to ignore science and medicine against medical advice, they have that right. What it does is impose a consequence. They will need to educate that child at home to prevent that child from becoming a vector for a preventable disease.”
Some parents are certain to accept that consequence and leave public and private schools.
It has been happening already. A virtual charter school program that serves Kern County students, but is based in Simi Valley, had 15 percent of its kindergarten students, or 18 children, opt out of vaccination because of personal beliefs.
That 15 percent is the highest rate of personal belief exemptions in Kern County. Only Ridgecrest schools Heritage Montessori and Immanuel Christian have as high a rate, but they serve only a small number of kindergartners.
Katrina Abston, head of schools for California Virtual Academies (which operates the Simi Valley program), said she thinks more parents may pull children out of traditional schools and enroll them in independent study to get around the law.
California Virtual Academies are already monitoring family inquiries to make sure they have enough staff members to accommodate any new additions, she said.
Strides to increase rates
Other public education officials said they were already working to increase vaccination rates.
The Sierra Sands Unified School District in Ridgecrest had six schools in which fewer than 90 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated in 2014.
Michelle Savko, coordinator of special projects in the Sierra Sands district, said her district has since launched a campaign to educate parents. The district also had schools with temporary medical exemptions reach out to families individually.
Paul Meyers, superintendent of the Standard School District, said his district is hiring a nurse practitioner to provide immunizations for students on site — an offering few Kern County schools provide.
“We wanted to remove every possible barrier to providing students access to education,” Meyers said.