Capitol Tracker: Vaccine bill to be decided in final 2 months of session

Bill would crack down on schools with low immunization rates

Dr. Richard Pan speaks about Senate Bill 276 during a health committee hearing earlier this year. Behind him is a poster that includes an ad from a Humboldt County business that sells vaccine exemptions. (Screenshot)
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Lawmakers in California headed back to work Monday following a month-long recess. They now have two months to finalize or kill any remaining proposed bills.

One of the more controversial is a bill that proposes to crack down on “fraudulent” medical vaccine exemptions, which have quadrupled in the years since California dropped allowances for personal medical exemptions.

Sen. Richard Pan’s (D-Sacramento) bill, SB 276, cleared a major hurdle in June when it passed out of the Assembly Health Committee, chaired by North Coast Assemblyman Jim Wood, on a 9-2 vote.

“We’re in the middle of the biggest measles outbreak in a quarter-century,” Pan noted at the time, arguing greater oversight of medical exemptions is a matter of protection for children. “… California cannot allow a handful of unscrupulous physicians to put our children in danger.”

Opponents of the bill — who have spoken out en masse with hundreds showing up to speak at a legislative committee meeting — argue the Legislature should not make medical decisions for individuals. Vaccine-hesitant parents have spoken out about “medically fragile” individuals who need special considerations made.

But Pan has accused “unscrupulous physicians,” including one who operates out of an office in Cutten, have contributed to lowering herd immunity, which needs to stay at or above 95% in order to protect those individuals who cannot receive vaccines.

Humboldt County’s herd immunity is lower than 89%, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. Some schools in Humboldt County have vaccination rates lower than 60% and the vaccine exemption rate locally is six times the state rate.

In California, there have been 65 confirmed cases of measles, the majority of which are in adults who are either unvaccinated or under-vaccinated.

SB 276 has until Aug. 30 to clear the Assembly Appropriations Committee, to where it was forwarded after the Assembly Health Committee vote.

Following some relaxing of the oversight requirements originally envisioned by Pan — namely allowing state officials to review exemptions — California Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed more openness to signing the bill. If approved by the Legislature, the bill would put a focus on more than a dozen Humboldt County schools that are below the 95% vaccination rate threshold. There are at least 14 schools in Humboldt County who don’t make the cut.

“This bill protects the rights of these children to attend school and ensures Californians have the freedom to go about their community without being at risk of becoming infected with serious, preventable diseases,” Pan said in June.

Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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