Where jobs and the economy were at front of mind during last Friday's protest at California’s Capitol, Thursday’s demonstration against the stay-at-home order also focused on closed churches and government-mandated vaccinations.
The microphone passed from person-to-person, who each attempted to encourage the few hundred within earshot. One woman said she was honored to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those in attendance. The next person to speak took the microphone and said a prayer.
People who oppose mandatory childhood vaccinations have been a driving force in recent protests against California’s stay-at-home orders. Many who are passionate about the issue say they haven’t vaccinated their children yet.
“I don’t vaccinate my children because I’ve done research on it and from experiences,” said Yvette Apfel of Modesto. “A lot of the people who don’t vaccinate because of experiences and that is not taken into account when they give their account of what’s happened.”
Generally, concerns about childhood vaccines stem from the debunked belief that vaccines can cause autism or otherwise injure children.
Democratic state Senator Dr. Richard Pan, who has authored several of California’s major childhood vaccine laws, said the messaging at these COVID-19 protests parallels what he’s seen from vaccination opponents in the past.
“We call them the anti-vaccine movement because they came out to oppose vaccination,” he said. “There’s no vaccine for COVID-19, but they’re also opposing essentially every public health measure we have that will allow us to resume our activities safely. So they’re opposed to the stay-at-home orders.”
At a hearing of the state’s Special Committee On Pandemic Emergency Response Wednesday, some people spoke up against public health measures such as contact tracing and testing.
He says he’s heard them preach the concept of “natural immunity,” which comes with a dangerous implication that everyone should acquire COVID-19.
“We often talk about ‘community immunity’ in relation to vaccination, because vaccines are safe,” he said. “So getting a vaccine doesn’t cause people to get hospitalized and die in the process of achieving it. If you try to achieve it through ‘natural immunity,’ you are talking about a lot of suffering and death.”
This is not the first time California’s been an epicenter of the anti-vaccination movement during the past few years.
In 2015, California became one of the first states to eliminate “personal belief” vaccine exemptions for students attending public and private schools. These were previously allowed for families that opposed vaccination on religious, moral or other grounds. Under Senate Bill 277, only children with a medical exemption form signed by a doctor can opt out of mandatory vaccines.
As the bill moved through the Legislature, large crowds of vaccination opponents descended on the Capitol for rallies and public hearings. Pan received violent threats from people who feel the government should not have the authority to require vaccines for kids.
In 2019, Pan’s office raised the alarm about doctors who were reportedly writing false medical forms for children who did not meet the federal criteria for an exemption. After the personal belief ban took effect in 2016, the rate of kindergartners with medical exemptions quadrupled, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Pan authored Senate Bill 276 to give the state final say on medical exemption forms. Hundreds of opponents packed into the halls of the Capitol to protest. Several weeks later, an opponent shoved Dr. Pan.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom ultimately signed the bill, with some changes. It takes effect January 2021.
Now, vaccination opponents seem to be mobilizing again, not around childhood immunizations but around the idea that the government can require people to vaccinate themselves.
On social media, some Californians have said they will not get vaccinated for COVID-19 when that immunization eventually becomes available. They’ve expressed concerns about the safety of vaccines developed during a crisis response. Some at the protest Thursday said they were worried the vaccine would be used as a tracking device.
“I think it’s more to the whole government issue about the vaccine being a tracer,” said Mary Paris, an unemployed nail salon worker from the Bay Area who drove to Sacramento for the protest. “Whoever gets it, then we’re gonna separate you. So I really think this go-around I’m not gonna do it.”
PolitiFact investigated the claims about government tracking in vaccines in April and found them to be false. They also looked into claims some about the Bill Gates Foundation related to vaccines and tracing and found them to be false, saying "There’s no evidence that implanted microchips are being contemplated in a serious way to fight the coronavirus."
A look by Reuters at the claims about “tracing” and Bill Gates found the technology being referred to is not a microchip or implant that would allow an entity to track your whereabouts. Instead it is a die that would provide patient vaccine records for doctors and nurses in places without medical records.
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