A bill tightening school vaccination requirements is making progress in the state legislature.
House Bill 3063 would remove parents’ ability to use philosophical or religious exemptions to decline or slow the administration of required vaccinations for their children who attend public and private school.
The bill, which passed the House 35-25 on Monday, would make Oregon the fourth state in the country to pass such legislation. Oregon has a nation-leading 7.5% of 2-year-olds who have at least one non-medical exemption.
Hundreds of families in Douglas County would be affected by the bill. In order to attend class or any school-related events, kids would have to be fully immunized by the Aug. 1, 2020 deadline. Parents claiming philosophical exemptions have said they might homeschool their children rather than immunize them, but it’s unclear how the bill could affect enrollment numbers.
The bill has become one of the most contentious pieces of legislation this session.
Supporters of the bill say the regulations are necessary to protect young children and people with compromised immune systems from contracting preventable diseases.
Public health officials are worried a series of measles outbreaks across the country are a sign previously eliminated diseases will regain footholds in communities with declining immunization rates. There have been more than 700 confirmed cases of measles in 2019, including 14 in Oregon — one outbreak in Clark County, Washington led to 73 confirmed cases.
Vocal opponents say the bill is an infringement on parents’ freedom to choose what medical treatments their children receive. Legislators who oppose the bill have downplayed the severity of recent measles outbreaks.
This year, 832 students in Douglas County schools have non-medical exemptions for at least one vaccine, according to Oregon Health Authority data. That’s 5.7% of all students. Almost half of those students have non-medical exemptions for all required vaccines.
The number of students with at least one non-medical exemption increased by 89 since last year, and students with non-medical exemptions for all vaccines increased by 32.
All school districts in the county, except the Riddle School District, which has 392 students, are less than 95% fully-vaccinated. Students in Riddle are 95.4% fully-vaccinated.
Douglas County Public Health Officer Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer said the goal is to have immunization rates as close to 100% as possible. He said each disease has a different threshold for herd immunity — immunization rates high enough that outbreaks are unlikely to spread. Rates must be 95% for measles, for example.
Some of the lowest vaccination rates in the county were in religiously-affiliated schools. The immunization rate for the seven religious schools in the county is 87.1%, the second-lowest in the county when compared to school districts.
Camas Valley Charter School currently has the lowest rate in the county, but the school’s rate is skewed by 19 students without exemptions that are on schedule to be fully-vaccinated.
Twenty-five of the 140 students at the Geneva Academy — a private, Christian school in Roseburg — have at least one non-medical exemption for vaccinations. Seventeen of those students don’t have any required vaccinations.
Headmaster Brian Turner said if the bill passes, it would substantially affect the 25 students’ families who have non-medical exemptions.
“It’s unclear to us at this point how many families might decide to not re-enroll,” Turner said. “There could be could be a significant number of families, but we don’t know yet at this point.”
The school hasn’t taken a position on the bill like it has in the past for legislation addressing other contentious issues such as common core or transgender bathroom requirements. But on Tuesday, Turner sent parents an email describing how the bill would affect the school, asking them to pray and suggesting they contact local state representatives if the issue is important to them.
“Whether you are engaged or indifferent to the issue, it will have an impact on private Christian schools, including ours,” Turner said in the email. “I don’t know how many families might choose to homeschool to avoid one or more vaccinations, but even just a small part of that group leaving would be a sad loss for the school, and it might be a hard adjustment for those families, too.
“Even if you think vaccinations are critical public health necessities, as I do, it is important that parental rights are guarded. There is no telling what ‘public health necessities’ will be next: gun confiscation, elimination of homeschooling or religious instruction, forced support of causes or agendas abhorrent to God,” Turner said.
He said the bill is a “knee-jerk reaction” to recent measles outbreaks and it lacks the nuance that comes from a more balanced legislature — Democrats have supermajorities in both legislative chambers.
Turner added many families at the school with non-medical exemptions obtained them not because they’re philosophically-opposed to vaccinations, but because they had concerns about the impact they would have on their child’s health or pre-existing condition.
Nine Douglas County students received medical exemptions for vaccines this year.
Dannenhoffer said there are very few medical conditions — allergies to vaccine components or immunodeficiency conditions, for example — that warrant medical exemptions.
“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) does outline what the reasons for exemptions are, and thankfully they’re all rare,” Dannenhoffer said.
He said he wishes legislators didn’t have to require immunizations.
“The far more preferable thing would be for people to carefully look at the science, and agree on the science, and then do the right thing,” Dannenhoffer said. “It does not appear in our society that that’s really a possibility at this point. If people really carefully looked at the science, they would see that indeed measles vaccination is very safe, it’s very effective, it’s not associated with things like autism.”
Gov. Kate Brown has said she will sign the bill when it gets to her desk, but when exactly that will happen is unclear. Senate Republicans began boycotting the session on Tuesday, leaving the capitol and preventing the 20-member quorum needed to conduct business. HB 3063 was on a list of controversial bills Republicans are demanding Democrats kill in order to continue the session.