California

3 in 4 Californians back vaccines as state debates making it tougher to opt out

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Cleveland Clinic explains how measles comes on, develops, can get complicated and how to prevent the infectious disease.
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Cleveland Clinic explains how measles comes on, develops, can get complicated and how to prevent the infectious disease.

As lawmakers and vaccine skeptics battle in the Capitol corridors over a bill to restrict medical exemptions, a new poll shows that three fourths of Californians support mandatory vaccinations and nearly all believe the shots are safe.

Close to 75 percent of 1,713 surveyed adults think that parents should vaccinate their children, a new Public Policy Institute of California poll released on Wednesday showed. Nearly eight in 10 said they worry a recent nationwide outbreak of 981 measles cases will continue to spread. There are 47 reported cases in California.

We find partisan differences on almost everything today. This is a topic when there isn’t a partisan difference on whether vaccinations should be required,” said the institute’s president and CEO Mark Baldassare. “And virtually all Californians say its very or somewhat safe.”

The widespread support for immunization parallels efforts in the California Senate, where state Sen. Richard Pan is pushing legislation that would make it harder for families to skirt vaccines. Senate Bill 276 would restrict medical exemptions, or contraindications, unless they qualify under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.

The proposal drew a swarm of protesters during its committee hearing in late April, but the measure passed its chamber floor a month later. It will have to pass the Assembly in order to be considered by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Pan, a Sacramento Democrat and former pediatrician, said the legislation is necessary to improve a 2015 law he also wrote that eliminated personal beliefs from a list of accepted reasons not to vaccinate school children.

But families have found a loophole in the law, Pan argues. Parents are now going to “unscrupulous physicians” who are issuing “fake” exemptions, he said. As a result, the percentage of enrolled kindergarteners who obtained medical contraindications has more than tripled since the 2015 law passed, up from 0.2 percent to 0.7 percent.

“That’s dangerous,” Pan said. “The kids in those schools do not have the protection from people around them not being immunized. That’s why we need to solve this problem. And the number will grow if we don’t do anything about this.”

This year’s legislation would require the Department of Public Health to create a uniform document that doctors would fill out if they want to issue a medical exemption. They would then file the form back with the department, where public health officials would approve or deny the request using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of qualified exemptions. If denied, the physician could appeal the decision and offer more rationale for the exception.

The health department is also tasked with creating and monitoring a database of medical exemptions with the license numbers and name of the doctors who signed off on them. The Medical Board of California said the database will increase oversight of doctors who might be issuing fraudulent or questionable exemptions.

The public health department said it estimates that out of an annual 15,000 medical and temporary exemptions expected, 5,500 of those will not meet the criteria under the new bill.

Pan said the proposal is necessary to preserve “community immunity,” the concept that the more children who are vaccinated, the safer it is for sick kids who cannot get vaccinated.

But families who’ve rallied against the bill in protests at the Capitol or through social media campaigns say the legislation would give too much power to government bureaucrats.

They range from parents who have a child with a medical exemption they fear will be revoked to those who altogether deny the safety of immunizations.

Pan argues that “the science says” vaccinations are safe and adverse reactions are rare.

“We want to protect medical exemptions because the kids that really get them need to be protected,” he said. “They need to be safe.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.
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