When Gov. Jared Polis told reporters last week that he’s “pro-choice” on vaccines, “that was music to my ears,” said Philip Silberman.
Silberman, the leader of the state’s largest group advocating against mandatory vaccination and promoting — against the nearly unanimous consensus of medical professionals — that vaccines are medically risky, said Polis’s open-mindedness on the issue is refreshing to vaccine skeptics used to being dismissed or demonized.
“I talked with Jared Polis during the campaign. We had a nice little conversation at a meet-and-greet. And he said to me, ‘Listen, this is about freedom, and freedom is a Colorado value.’ And that just stuck with me,” said Silberman, who says his organization, Colorado Health Choice Alliance, grew from 1,000 members to 5,000 this year alone. “Jared Polis has honored his promise to me.”
He later added, “So that’s why he’s my bud.”
The anti-vax and the vaccine-skeptical comprise a diverse political bunch, with far-right and far-left alike, plus a strong proportion of people identifying as libertarian. Interviews with a half-dozen Coloradans from this community show a decidedly mixed review of Polis overall. If they had their druthers, Polis would not only empathize, but he would adopt their positions about the dangers of vaccines and their skepticism of the companies producing them.
He’s not done that, but it is clear that the governor’s “pro-choice” stance has emboldened a community that was headed for a massive legislative defeat this past session if not for Polis opposing his own Democratic party and threatening a veto.
Colorado ranks last in the nation for childhood vaccinations. But, rejecting the guidance of state public health officials and his fellow Democrats, the governor has consistently pushed the idea that Colorado should maintain what Silberman calls “medical freedom.”
The problem with parents viewing vaccines as a choice is that communities are better protected when nearly everyone buys in, suggested Dr. Daniel Shodell, deputy director of the Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
“Vaccinating your children on time, every time, protects not only them from preventable disease,” Shodell said. “It protects those who cannot protect themselves because they are too young or because they have medical conditions that prevent them from getting vaccines. This is called community immunity. When parents don’t have their kids vaccinated, communities are at greater risk of disease outbreaks.”
Last week, the CDPHE released new numbers showing that the state’s measles-mumps-rubella vaccination rate among kindergarteners, already 50th best, actually dropped 1.3% over the past year. The very day those numbers came out, Polis announced an executive order that doubled down on the idea that effective vaccination and parental choice are not mutually exclusive. The order encourages greater education on the topic, but won’t stop parents who want to opt out.
At a press conference announcing the order, KDVR reporter Joe St. George asked Polis if he was willing to say that anti-vaxxers are “wrong.”
“Wrong about what? It’s not the decision I made for my kids. I gave my kids their shots, their immunization. I encourage all parents to give kids immunization,” Polis said. “We have in our state Christian Scientists, we have people who have objections, and nobody should be forced to do anything with their bodies. I’m pro-choice.”
Matt Baylor of Colorado Springs, one of some 5,000 members of the alliance Silberman directs, said of the governor’s stance: “When he says, ‘I’m for medical choice, I’m pro-choice’, that’s excellent. That protects my ability as a parent. When he says forced immunizations don’t promote trust in the medical practice, it gives me hope.”
‘A puddle of gasoline’
As Colorado’s vaccination rates drop, measles — a disease that is, at best, highly unpleasant and, at worst, can be fatal — is roaring back from near-elimination in the U.S., with 1,044 confirmed cases as of June 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s like a puddle of gasoline waiting for a match to get thrown on it,” said nurse and state Rep. Kyle Mullica of Colorado’s susceptibility to an outbreak.
Mullica and public health experts say the time to act is now.
But the governor’s response has been consistently measured in his first six months in office. He fought back against his party by threatening to veto House Bill 1312, which aimed to increase childhood vaccination rates, but which also would have required parents seeking exemptions to apply in person. Colorado schools do require students be immunized, thought parents have the option to opt their children out of those requirements for medical or non-medical reasons.
“The idea behind that aspect of the policy was to ensure that parents had to do as much work to opt out of the immunization as the parents who opt in and go to a doctor, schedule the appointment, take their kids in,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and who, along with Brighton Republican Kevin Priola, carried 1312 in the Senate.
“It shouldn’t be easier to opt out than it is to opt in,” she said.
Polis felt that was a bridge too far.
“Of course we don’t support things like requiring anyone to go in person and things like that,” he said at a town hall in April.
His resistance to the bill forced Mullica to neuter it several times, and by the time the bill reached the Senate floor the last week of the legislative session — it sailed through the House, 39-20 — the calendar was so backlogged that Senate Democrats tabled it indefinitely.
They and their Republicans colleagues in the Senate openly admitted at the time that the tabling was essentially a trade: pull the vaccine measure, which Republicans were prepared to debate for hours, and free up time to pass of a slew of other bills before the session expired. But even if the bill had cleared the Senate, Polis may have vetoed it.
That a bill to improve Colorado’s dead-last vaccination rate — and one backed strongly by epidemiologists — proved to be one of the toughest sells of the session, remains highly frustrating to Mullica.
“We don’t have time to wait. We don’t have time to take this issue slowly,” said the first-year legislator, a Democrat from Northglenn.
The executive order called for more education and study on the topic, but doesn’t guarantee any imminent, tangible action to mop up the gasoline puddle Mullica sees.
“I’m never going to argue against studying it more — the executive order was a step in the right direction — but we have a job to do as legislators as well,” he said, vowing to try again next year with a new bill.
“The governor and I may not agree on this. That’s fine. I don’t expect us to agree on everything,” he said. “I’m an emergency room nurse. The governor’s an entrepreneur. … And I’ve communicated with him that we really need to work with the experts in the field.”
Experts have already spoken in crystal-clear terms.
CDPHE’s Shodell was unequivocal about the safety, reliability and effectiveness of vaccines. So were a slew of medical experts who helped craft Mullica’s bill and then testified in support of it.
One of them — Dr. Jessica Cataldi, pediatrician and specialist in infectious disease with the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics — said that signaling to parents that vaccination can be a choice is “potentially dangerous.”
“The rhetoric of choice is something used by many people who oppose efforts to strengthen immunization policy and it’s often used as a way to frame the argument against vaccines, and then often paired with misinformation about the science,” Cataldi said.
Added Gonzales, “I would hope that the governor understands how his words carry consequences. I have been willing to work with the governor, work with the CDPHE, work with community to make sure we’re keeping our Colorado kids safe. His rhetoric risks undermining all of those good-faith efforts.”
Asked by The Independent about the governor’s role in emboldening those who oppose vaccine mandates, his office said only that: “The Governor believes every child who can be vaccinated in Colorado should be. That is why he has directed the CDPHE to conduct direct outreach to vaccine hesitant communities. CDPHE is committed to achieving the Governor’s goal to increase immunization rates and provide more Coloradans with access to vaccinations.”
In the days before Polis announced his executive order, the actress Jessica Biel came under fire for meeting with prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and endorsing the idea of parental choice. Biel and Polis are both Boulder natives, and Boulder County consistently has some of the country’s lowest childhood vaccination rates; some schools and homeschool programs hover between 13 and 28 percent, according to the Daily Camera.
She was swiftly condemned by medical professionals and countless social media commentators.
California state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and public health expert sponsoring a vaccination bill Biel has criticized, told The New York Times: “It’s unfortunate that a celebrity who does have a platform — she has lots of followers on social media and other things — is spreading misinformation about both vaccines and the bill,” he said. “I appreciated that many people are calling her out for that. It’s important we stand up for science and facts — and, more important, keep our kids safe.”
Polis, too, has spoken with RFK Jr. about vaccines. Philip Silberman and Republican state Rep. Kim Ransom of Littleton joined the two on a conference call at the end of the legislative session, Silberman said.
“It was just refreshing to know the governor was there listening,” Silberman said. “I don’t know if that conversation influenced his decision, because he’d already committed to protecting (parental) rights. But I was happy that the governor was willing to have the conversation.”
Biel insists she’s not anti-vax, as do the majority of people who tend to be labeled as such. Silberman says his alliance does not outright oppose vaccines. And Polis says he personally supports and believes in vaccination. Their common denominator is the belief that, on this front, parents should do what they believe is right — even as scientific consensus points to the serious public health consequences of those individual choices.
“It should be very reassuring to everyone,” said Parker parent and vaccine skeptic Andrew Roise. “I can tell you that calling anti-vaccine people or people concerned with vaccines stupid, by being hostile or accusing them, … you’re not going to make any progress. (Polis) is saying, ‘Let’s understand the distrust and get to the bottom of it,’ that when it comes to your own children, somebody’s not going to force you to do something.”
And though Mullica tries to project optimism by insisting that further discussion with experts might bring about a different legislative result next year, he is also reckoning with the fact that the exhaustive and unambiguous medical research already done about vaccines was not enough to sway Polis into backing stricter requirements for parents.
He, like other legislators who disagree with Polis but must work with him, is careful about how he talks about the governor and his position. But his disappointment is evident.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Mullica said, sighing.