MONTPELIER — A bill in the Vermont House, H.238, seeks to eliminate the religious exemption from the list of reasons parents can cite to keep their children from being vaccinated prior to enrollment in public school.
“We dealt with this issue two to three years ago, within the last couple bienniums,” said Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, the bill’s primary sponsor. “The Legislature removed the philosophical exception ... soon after that, we had some improvement in the vaccination rate.”
According to the Vermont Department of Health, the percentage of children in grades k-12 who were properly vaccinated in their age group rose to a 10-year high last year at 91.1 percent, a 1.5-percent increase from 2017.
The Washington State Department of Health reported 62 cases of measles as of Monday, and the New York City Department of Health confirmed 73 cases of measles in the Jewish Orthodox District of the city as of one week ago.
The Vermont Department of Health, in light of the sudden resurgence of the disease in other states, released a report for clinicians on Feb. 8 stating the root of the outbreaks was low rates of vaccination in children and not detailing symptoms to look for.
“That’s a big part of the back-to-school (process),” said Carlene Looney, school nurse at Rutland Intermediate School, during an interview earlier this year. “In order to enter school, the kids have to be up to date on DTAP (Diptheria, Tetanus and Pertussis), Hepatitis B, Polio, chicken pox and MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella). Then, when they turn 11, they need the Tdap booster.”
Several students at the Rutland Intermediate School remain unvaccinated, citing either a medical or religious exemption, she said.
“The medical exemption, like if they are allergic to the chicken pox vaccine, has to be signed by their doctor,” Looney said. “They sign it once, and they never have to file it again. The religious exemption has to be re-filed every year: They don’t have to state a case, they just have to claim religious exemption.”
LaLonde said when the philosophical exemption was removed, religious exemptions for vaccinating increased, and with outbreaks sneaking closer to home, it was time to suggest removing that one too.
“I felt that this was timely to bring this bill forward,” LaLonde said. “There are pockets (in Vermont) with 70- to 80-percent (vaccination rates).”
According to the Vermont Department of Health, religious exemptions jumped from 0.9 percent in 2015-16 to 3.7 percent in 2016-17 after the philosophical exemption was removed, which accounted for 4.6 percent of un-vaccinated students in grades k-12 in 2015-16.
“It’s a public health issue,” LaLonde said.
LaLonde said his bill weighs on the stricter side, completely eliminating the exemption, but that if the bill made it out of the Judiciary Committee, a simple narrowing or restricting of the exemption might be considered rather than yanking it entirely.
LaLonde said it was the right of the parents to decide not to vaccinate.
If they chose to invoke that right, their children would simply not be allowed in public schools, according to the current version of his bill.
“I’ve received quite a few emails on both sides of this issue,” LaLonde said. “They generally want the opportunity to exert the exemption.”
But legislators would have to beat the clock: the bill is in the Judiciary Committee, where LaLonde serves. He said the committee’s caseload is quickly filling with priorities.
“We’re running out of time before we have to send our bills to the Senate,” LaLonde said. “If there is some sort of an outbreak, then it’s something there that we could look at.”
If the bill went in committee, scientists and medical professionals would be asked to offer testimony on the issue.
“There’s a lot of viewpoints of vaccination,” LaLonde said. “That it’s not safe, or they view this as a personal choice ... I respect those viewpoints ... (This is about) whether one can subject the other school children to the potential of disease.”
At this point, LaLonde said he doubts the committee will have the opportunity for testimony, but the bill will stay until the end of the biennium as a placeholder.
The bill is supported by Rep. Seth Chase, D-Colchester; Rep. Lori Houghton, D-Montpelier; Rep. John Killacky, D-South Burlington; Rep. Rob Scheu, D-Middlebury; Rep. Trevor Squirrell, D-Underhill; and Rep. Linda Sullivan, D-Dorset.