SALT LAKE CITY— A controversial bill that would amend children’s immunization requirements failed to pass through the Legislature after 10 substitutions.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D–Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill that would have created new regulations for students seeking immunization exemption. HB221 would require families to work with the local health departments for exemption and would also implement an online education module.
Moss explained that this bill is needed because the number of vaccinated students is decreasing, which has changed the dynamics of the public health situation. 87,000 children in Utah are not vaccinated. 181 are unvaccinated for religious reasons; 1,450 are unvaccinated for medical reasons; and 34,610 are unvaccinated for personal reasons. As a result, Moss said, Utah is losing its “herd immunity.”
“The state, medical community and health departments [have a] responsibility to protect all people, particularly children who can’t protect themselves,” Moss said.
As a former high school English teacher, Moss has seen her fair share of illness in the classroom. In 2011, for example, there was a measles outbreak in Utah. The health department spent $250,000 trying to fight the outbreak, and many students and teachers were put at risk, Moss says. One student in her daughter’s class, for example, had leukemia when exposed to the measles. The student then missed two weeks of school right before taking the A.P. test.
Moss noted that the purpose of this bill, however, is not to convince parents to immunize their children. “I want to respect parents’ rights, but they must understand the risks to their child and to others,” she said.
Understanding is why Moss intended to implement the online module. In line with her vision, parents would complete the 20-minute module at home three times, starting when their children enter kindergarten and finishing when their children graduate from high school.
Currently health departments across the state teach different things about immunizations. This online module would have helped standardize learning by giving everyone the same information. This education would also have helped the community form a plan in the case of an outbreak, which would include excluding unvaccinated children from classes for 21 days.
Had the bill passed, upon completing the module, parents would print the certificate and bring it into the local health department. After being approved by the health department, parents would bring the exemption form into their child’s school. This exemption would need to be renewed every five years.
Kim Lowe, a school nurse in Alpine School District, testified on behalf of Utah school nurses in front of the House Health and Human Services Committee. She said that school nurses support HB221 because it would standardize vaccination training and would prepare parents for a call from the school nurse in the event of an outbreak. Lowe emphasized that school nurses respect parents’ right to exempt their child from immunizations, and HB221 would not take away this right.
Lacey Eden, a pediatric nurse practitioner who teaches immunizations therapy at BYU, also expressed her support of the bill. “Right now what is being done at local health departments is not working. The standardized education will make it the same whether you live in Logan or whether you live in St. George. All parents who are exempting their children will get the exact same education on how to protect their child and to decrease the spread of infection in their community,” Eden said.
Some representatives and community members, however, were hesitant to support Moss’s bill.
Community member Kristen Chevrier worked with Moss on the bill but did not support the amended version. She gave two reasons for opposing the bill. First, the bill neglects the fact that blood titers can be tested to determine immunity and additional need for vaccines. Secondly, vaccines are not necessarily safe or effective. According to Chevrier, the FDA estimates that only 1% of vaccine injuries are reported. She then presented 50 letters that she received from pro-vaccine parents whose children were injured by vaccines and then qualified for a medical exemption.
Gayle Ruzicka of Utah Eagle Forum explained that her opposition was based on the bill’s reliance on the health department. The requirement to go to the local health department to get the exemption form puts an undue burden on parents, especially those in rural counties, said Ruzicka.
Rep. Michael Kennedy, R—Alpine, stated that the language of the bill was too general when parents need specific guidelines. He noted that the bill is “a great step in the right direction” but suggested it be sent back to rules for interim study. Several other representatives, including Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, and Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, had similar feelings.
“I think we’re really close,” Ray said. “Immunization is important, but I want to make sure the parent has the choice.”
HB221 made it through the House, and the Senate amended the bill. The House then struck the enacted clause in the final hours of the Legislature.