This column was significantly updated on Friday, April 26, after Colorado Public Radio reported that Gov. Jared Polis had indicated he wouldn’t sign the current vaccination bill moving through the legislature.
If you’re among the overwhelming majority of Coloradans who believe in medical science, you know that the loud backlash to the oh-so-moderate immunization bill making its way through the legislature is, to use the scientific term, nuts.
And yet, there is a problem with the bill — a considerable problem.
But the problem is not that it’s taking away anyone’s right to get medical advice from the dark fringes of the Internet — because it doesn’t do that at all. The problem — given that we are dead last in the country in the rate of kindergartners being vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella — is that the bill is not nearly as tough as it could be. Or should be. And now the compromise bill seems to be in trouble, too.
Don’t blame the legislature for any of this. Blame the governor, who had already shot down the original key provision of the bill, which was to eliminate the personal-belief exemption as a rationale for not getting your kids vaccinated, as Washington state is in the process of doing and which California and Vermont had done a few years ago. And he is now apparently ready to gut the compromise version of the bill, which its supporters, in their talks with the governor, assumed he would sign.
In the latest version, the key provision is that parents who object to having their children immunized would have fill out a new standardized form and, on the first exemption request for a child, make an in-person trip to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment or their county health agency.
Currently, all a parent has to do is write his/her objection of a piece of paper and hand it into the school the child would attend. The experts recommended putting this inconvenience into the bill because of surprising data that shows stripping away convenience significantly lowers the number of parents seeking an exemption. With Colorado’s last-in-the-nation 89 percent vaccination rate for kindergarteners, the system seems to be in crisis. To gain so-called herd immunity — which stops the spread of measles and other contagious diseases — 95 percent of children need to be immunized.
But Polis apparently isn’t sure we’ve the crisis stage and says we need more data to be sure, even as measles outbreaks across the country are reaching levels not seen since the disease was declared basically eradicated in America in 2000.
“The truth is we need much better data,” Polis told me. “We might be at 89 percent, but we just can’t say that with confidence…I hope it’s not as dire as some believe, but we’ll look at the data.”
And he’s not ready to support the bill, in part, because of the requirement that parents need to make an in-person visit to a health agency the first year they apply for an exemptions.
”Of course we don’t support things like requiring anyone to go in person and things like that,” CPR quoted Polis as saying to the crowd. And asked whether he’d sign the bill, Polis said, “We’re not fully there yet. There’s still of course some changes that are going to be made to the bill.”
House sponsor Kyle Mullica, an emergency room nurse, said he doesn’t plan to make any more changes. And for good reason.
The experts put the exemption models in three easy-to-remember classes — easy, medium or difficult. “The easier the process for opting out, the higher the exemption rate,” says Dr. Sean O’Leary, spokesman for the American Pediatric Association and an expert in infectious disease who teaches at the University of Colorado Medical School. “Believe it or not, this bill would move us from one of the more lenient states to one of the more difficult. The studies show this makes a real difference.”
Studies done in states that have taken the convenience step show that, for some people, convenience can outweigh a belief in phony science, which has given us the thoroughly debunked and persistent link between vaccinations and autism.
When I talked to O’Leary on Wednesday, he said he hopes Polis will sign the bill — “Far better than our status quo,” he says — without any amendments.
But when I asked O’Leary about the California law and whether Colorado should have gone as far, he explained that it was “off the table.” But it was off the table only because Polis had pushed it off. Here’s some California data: Since California ended all non-medical exemptions for the shots in 2015, the immunization rate for Los Angeles County has moved from 90 percent to 95. That’s the kind of jump Colorado needs.
And now this.
The Democratic majorities in both houses were prepared to do considerably more than this bill, but there’s a trend developing here. It was the threat of a Polis veto that watered down the latest bill on ICE and immigration. Remember when Republicans were trying to put the brakes on Democratic legislators? Now Polis is taking a turn at threatening vetoes. He has been actually doing that all term.
Polis is not anti-vaccine, of course. He’s strongly pro-vaccine. His kids are vaccinated. But he also believes that it’s counterproductive to mandate vaccinations. Here’s a sample quote from Polis, who told Hill TV in February: “It’s important that parents vaccinate their children, but you can’t do that at the point of a gun. When the government tries to force parents to do this, it creates distrust in both vaccinations and distrust in government.”
So, Polis is not a science skeptic, but he is apparently a collected-by-schools data skeptic. Under the bill, it would be collected by state and county health agencies. And whatever the data, Polis says, he is counting on education and outreach to improve the immunization rate.
That’s all well and good, I guess, but whether or not the 89 percent is accurate — and I’m not sure why we shouldn’t think so — we know there are deep pockets in the state with dangerously low immunization rates, and that we have the further problem in Colorado of anti-vaxxers coming from the right as well as from the left, leaving the issue of trying to educate both with presumably the same message.
Is that really the message that Polis wants to leave us with — that everyone should get their kids vaccinated but the problem might not be all that bad and, anyway, parents know best?
Here’s some data that CNN has collected from federal officials. Of the 626 cases of measles that officials had counted as of last week, 72% of those infected were unvaccinated and 18% had unknown vaccination status. And of those 626, 487 were people 19 and younger.
So it’s mostly kids who don’t have a choice in the matter. And it’s parents who are risking not only their own children’s health but the health of kids too young to be vaccinated or those who are otherwise medically at risk to be vaccinated. Somehow, I feel like that’s all the data I need.
And yet, the governor says he can’t confidently cite the 89 percent non-vaccinate rate, which would suggest the possibility of an impending crisis in Colorado. So we’re left to hope there is no significant measles outbreak in Colorado — putting children’s lives at risk — to prove him wrong.