House panel weighs school vaccine waiver requirement

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Dozens of people crammed into a committee hearing room Thursday to weigh in on legislation to stop the state’s health department from requiring a signed waiver from parents of schoolchildren who are not vaccinated against major communicable diseases.

Supporters of the legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, say the bills attempt to rein in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services after it adopted a 2014 administrative rule requiring parents who don’t want their school-age kids vaccinated to sign a waiver  and "receive education" about vaccines from a county health department to attend school.

Michigan had the sixth most kindergarteners in the nation waived from required immunizations during the 2014-2015 school year, according to state data. The rate dropped 35 percent and then held steady after adoption of the new rule.

But Barrett argued Thursday that it’s not the state health department’s place to require the waiver and called it “government overreach.”

His legislation would allow parents to state in writing to school officials that their children were not vaccinated. They would no longer file a form with the health department, relying instead on the school to submit that information to the state, according to the legislation.

State health officials’ rule “interjects them in between themselves and the school,” said Joel Dorfman with the Troy-based Michigan for Vaccine Choice. He criticized the department for subjecting such parents “to what is termed an ‘education,’ but is really an indoctrination” highlighting the benefits of vaccination.

“You are being compelled to speak, which is a violation of our First Amendment right, the freedom of speech,” he continued. “And then you’re being cross-examined on your religious and your philosophical beliefs with regard to why you chose not to vaccinate.”

Under current law, parents signing the state waiver are asked for their “reason for refusal.” The form notes that declining vaccination could risk contracting “the illness the vaccine is intended to prevent and transmitting the disease to others.”

It also notes that “the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and the state’s health department “strongly recommend that the vaccine(s) be given.”

Vaccination sketpics say vaccinations often don’t prevent diseases and fear vaccinations can cause new health problems, even autism in children.

The CDC has said unequivocally that vaccines do not cause autism, and that there is no link between autism and vaccines.

The anti-vaccination movement has been blamed for rising whooping cough and measles cases in Michigan and across the nation.

Michigan Department of Community Health epidemiologists blame a lack of vaccinations for 1,300 whooping cough cases in 2014. The highly contagious respiratory tract infection is marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Bob Swanson, director of the Division of Immunization with the Michigan Department of Community Health, has said infants and children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations are particularly at risk. The disease can spread to teens and adults whose immunity has faded and who could then pass it on to an infant.

In 2015, a Traverse City whooping cough outbreak spread to children at 19 schools, Northwestern Michigan College, day cares and preschools. About 90 cases had been confirmed in 2015 as part of the outbreak.

A Grand Traverse County health official said she saw a spike in immunization requests after news about rising communicable disease rates.

County health officials also heard of two young adults in the region who developed measles while traveling outside the country that same year. The measles spread to three more people, two adults and a child. None of the five had been vaccinated.

The highest concentration of immunization waivers are in the thumb area of the state and some parts of northern Michigan in both the lower and Upper peninsulas, according to 2016 state data. Houghton, Schoolcraft, Mackinac, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Huron and Lapeer counties combined had 17.4 percent of seventh-graders waived. Kindergartener immunization waivers follow a similar geographical trend.

Democrats and some GOP House panel members appeared critical during Thursday’s testimony. Eighteen Republicans sponsor both bills in the package, including Education Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. But Kelly acknowledged there isn’t enough support on the panel to approve the measure as written.

Kelly said he has changes in mind he thinks would win support from three Republican lawmakers on the panel who currently oppose the measure.