Measles Outbreak

The Colorado Legislature is facing three bills targeting the contentious issue of vaccinations. One piece of legislation has already been killed in committee.

Three bills targeting the contentious issue of vaccinations are making their way through the Colorado General Assembly.

The most contentious, unveiled Feb. 3 and set to be introduced as early as this week, is similar to last year’s failed bill to address school vaccination rates. The proposal would make it harder to exempt school-age kids from vaccinations by requiring parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children take an online education course, or to produce a form signed by a physician’s assistant or doctor. The legislation would also require schools to notify parents of its vaccination rates.

Currently, the only requirement for Colorado parents who don’t want their children vaccinated is to submit a statement to the school office. Colorado law also honors medical and religious exemptions. The new bill would require parents to refile every school year.

The idea of having to take an education course frustrates parents who have chosen to not vaccinate their children, National Vaccine Information Center Executive Director Theresa Wrangham said.

“These choices are not made lightly,” Wrangham said. “They’re assuming we are idiots. I consider this discrimination. If we’re going to educate, let’s educate everyone.”

When the law was discussed, all eyes were on Gov. Jared Polis for reaction after his opposition to last year’s version of the bill was key in its defeat. At that time, he described himself as “pro-choice” on vaccines. But Polis has reversed his stance, saying in a statement that he “believes immunizations are key to protecting our children’s and Colorado’s public health.”

Polis spokesman Conor Cahill added, “The most recent draft of the bill honors the rights of parents while supporting the administration’s efforts to boost immunization rates, and that is a bill that the governor can support.”

The bill is to be sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn. Mullica is the only lawmaker who is a nurse. All three declined to comment on the legislation until it is formally introduced.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Colorado’s kindergarten MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination rate is the lowest in the United States, at 88.4% in compliance for the 2018-2019 school year.

Michelle Ames, a spokeswoman for Colorado Vaccinates, a group that supports children receiving a full range of immunizations before they start school, says Colorado has an “embarrassing” track record.

“Measles, mumps, rubella is the most dangerous,” Ames told Colorado Politics. “I know these parents who don’t vaccinate feel they are making the best decisions for their children. But the science does not support the decisions they are making.”

Vaccinations required for children K-12 include Hepatitis B, Diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTap), MMR and tetanus. By a wide margin, most parents who opted out of vaccinating their children did so for personal beliefs, which The National Vaccination Center {span}defines as “conscientious objection” and only requires a signed statement. Colorado is one of 15 states that allow such exemptions.

“Parents don’t have to do anything except sign their names and say you don’t believe in vaccinations. And it doesn’t matter why,” Ames said. “It takes me longer to sign my kid up for club soccer than to exempt my kids from vaccinations at school.”

This session’s version of the bill includes several changes on how it handles medical exemptions by widening the range of professionals who can provide them to all immunization providers.

“Some adults and kids have very bad reactions to certain vaccines,” Wrangham said but Ames called such medical concerns “a small sample of the population.”

Other bills in play

A second bill, House Bill 1239, would require doctors and other health care providers to fully inform parents of the risks and benefits of vaccinations.

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs and a co-sponsor of the bill, said it was about consumer protection.

“The goal is to keep the government from forcing parents into a situation where they are vaccinating. It’s not an anti- or pro-vax bill. It allows people to decide for themselves.”

The bill has been assigned to the Health & Insurance Committee, with a hearing tentatively set for Feb. 26.

The third bill, which was killed 3-1 in the committee, sought to address perceived discrimination in the workplace regarding vaccines.

Senate Bill 84 would have prohibited employers, including health care facilities, from taking actions against workers who refuse to get vaccinations.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, told Colorado Politics that bill, which she is co-sponsoring with Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, mainly affects health care workers.

“Many of them are required to wear masks. They may be put on leave or have their hours cut because they aren’t vaccinated,” she said. “They’re not refusing vaccinations, they’re refusing some of them because of bad reactions. Where there’s risk, there should be choice.”

Saine and Ames said the vaccination debate had nothing to do with political affiliation.

“There is absolutely no political divide on this issue,” Ames said. “It’s young, old, male, female, Republican, Democrat, Independent, rural, urban. It doesn’t matter. … We all believe in public health.”

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