California is poised to become a battleground over strict vaccine laws, an issue that has become even more inflamed since 2019, when anti-vaccine protesters were arrested and a state lawmaker assaulted.
State Sen. Richard Pan (D–Sacramento) this week introduced Senate Bill 871, which would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required school vaccines, eliminating personal or religious exemptions for the immunization on Jan. 1, 2023.
“The vaccination requirement is a cornerstone to keeping schools open and safe,” Pan said in an interview. “This vaccine has proven to be safe and effective.”
Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has not been granted full approval for children aged 5-15, but has emergency authorization. Pan’s bill wouldn’t require full approval to take effect, but he said it could come later this year.
Pan, a pediatrician, is also co-authoring a bill by Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) to allow teenagers to get vaccinated without parental consent. Other bills lawmakers are reportedly crafting would issue broader vaccine requirements among workers and customers.
Vaccine bills over the years
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
In 2019, Pan authored SB276, which clamped down on non-medical exemptions for school immunizations. That year, he was shoved near the state Capitol by an opponent to the bill, who livestreamed the confrontation. In another incident, a protester hurled a menstrual cup full of blood from the Senate gallery onto lawmakers below. Several people were arrested for blocking access to the Capitol.
“It speaks to the poverty of their arguments,” Pan said. “Too often the opposition to bills like this one are not based on science and facts, and instead the opposition resorts to threats and violence.”
Pan has also authored laws requiring schools to verify students are immunized as well as ending personal exemptions for the shots in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Vaccines have become even more politically divisive since the pandemic began, and Pan is gearing up for another round of ugly debates over COVID-19 vaccine bills this year.
Though he hasn’t run any vaccine legislation since 2019, activists have held a steady presence at the state Capitol, testifying in recent weeks against bills including a proposal to implement a single payer health system and others. Anti-vaccine protesters also played a leading role in early pandemic demonstrations against stay-at-home orders.
Many of those activists, citing debunked and retracted research, claim vaccinations cause autism or otherwise harm children.
Clinical trials and other research has proven the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and helps prevent severe disease.
Stefanie Fetzer, founder of the group Parents United 4 Kids, which opposes vaccination requirements for kids, says many parents don’t want the state making decisions for their families
“Given the fact that countries around the world are dropping restrictions, eschewing mandates, and accepting that Covid is becoming endemic,” she wrote in a statement, “Senator Pan’s new bill shows just how out of touch he is, both scientifically and politically.”
Assembly member James Gallagher (R–Yuba City) said he would oppose the bill but called on parents and teachers to “mobilize to stop” it, adding, “your phone calls, emails and voice in Sacramento will decide whether or not this becomes law.”
What’s next at the Capitol
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
The legislature will likely take up debate on new vaccine bills as the omicron surge fades. Already, some experts acknowledge the virus will likely become endemic and a part of daily life.
Some doctors have recently begun to urge political leaders to re-evaluate the continued need for stringent measures after the current surge subsides.
Several UC San Francisco physicians penned an open letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and other leaders, asking them to drop mask requirements in schools. It also urges them to “acknowledge that any adult and most school age children have now had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, and that forcing further mandates, particularly requiring boosters for children, is likely to increase mistrust and resentment of government and public health officials.”
The letter focuses on dropping masks and returning schools to normal, citing increased mental health issues and arguing that children are at lower risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Other health experts point out the children can still be affected by the disease and spread it to adults who could be at a higher risk of severe illness or death.
Newsom has leaned into mandates since the vaccine became available, requiring them for teachers and health care workers. He issued a mandate requiring schoolchildren to get the vaccine after it receives full FDA approval. But under California law, only the Legislature can remove religious and personal exemptions for school vaccines.
The governor is asking lawmakers to immediately fund $583 million for increased vaccination and booster shot campaigns, including efforts to target vaccine misinformation. The funding is part of a $2.7 billion pandemic budget request.
Some school districts have implemented their own vaccine requirements, but one in San Diego was struck down in court. “Many courts have said it's important that the Legislature actually acts,” Pan said, citing that decision as another reason to push SB871.
“I don’t do vaccine bills just to do vaccine bills. I do them when there’s a problem,” he said. “We're all in this together. We all share, hopefully, the same goal of stopping this virus.”
Legislative rules bar debate on new bills for 30 days after they are introduced, so Pan’s bill cannot be taken up before Feb. 24.
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