The hallways of the third floor at the Colorado Capitol were lined with children and their moms Wednesday as the first hearing for a proposed bill to tighten the process for getting vaccine exemptions drew more than 400 people.
Those in favor of raising Colorado’s lowest-in-the-nation immunization rates sounded the alarm about a preventable public health crisis, while critics of the bill called it discriminatory and questioned the science.
“Acting as if vaccines are safe for all or even 95% is not science, it’s sales,” Brittany Dock told members of the Senate health and human services committee, objecting to requiring parents to sign a form saying they know they are putting their children at risk by not vaccinating them.
If Senate Bill 163 passes, parents would still be able to claim religious or personal belief exemptions for their children when signing them up for public schools. However, they would have to either get a form signed by a licensed physician or complete an online module about vaccines. It would also improve collection of data about exemptions in a central system.
“Please do the right thing,” urged Kate Brooks, who has a 9-year-old daughter with a compromised immunity system. Last year, she said, she was terrified when people who contracted measles were admitted to the same hospital where her daughter had been hospitalized.
Parents who have opted their children out of vaccines told lawmakers they receive threats and harassment, and the bill would further that type of behavior. Melissa Atchley, the mother of a boy with autoimmune disease, she has received threats that have called for her to be hung from a tree and have her throat slit.
Seven doctors in three states have told Atchley not to vaccinate her son, she said, but none would sign off on exemptions because they feared harassment. So, she uses another exemption. The bill’s proposed collection of data about exemptions is a concern for her.
“My very sick son goes into an easily breachable database like a criminal,” said Atchley, who serves on the board of the Colorado Health Choice Alliance. “This bill doesn’t protect him.”
Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, told committee members that research shows the easier it is to get a nonmedical exemption, the lower the immunization rates to prevent diseases “that shouldn’t exist in 2020.”
Not every parent who exempts their kids is opposed to vaccines, he said — the process is so easy that some do it on the assumption that most of the children in their kids’ schools are already vaccinated.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, noted that the bill does not mandate vaccines or eliminate nonmedical exemptions.
“It is our goal to make sure all parents are making a thoughtful and well-informed choice about how their decision not only affects the health of their children but the health of the community,” he said.
But the bill he’s carrying with Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, doesn’t yet have any other Republican support. Senators on the committee raised questions about combining personal and religious beliefs into one category of nonmedical exemptions, and they echoed concerns from opponents about creating a database with medical information that’s distributed to schools and parents. The Colorado Department of Public Health already has that information, but placing it in the hands of schools worried parents.
A different version of the vaccine bill failed last year after Democratic Gov. Jared Polis opposed it, but he has said he supports this year’s bill.
This story will be updated.