Anti-vaccine movement derails bill
strengthening Florida standards
By John Kennedy
GateHouse Capital Bureau
Legislation aimed at strengthening vaccination requirements for Florida schoolkids already appears dead, well before the start of next year’s state legislative session.
TALLAHASSEE — Despite rising concerns about a resurgence of childhood illnesses, legislation aimed at strengthening vaccination requirements for Florida schoolkids already appears dead on arrival.
Activists opposed to vaccinations have packed hometown public hearings with Florida lawmakers this month, urging them to reject a measure that would eliminate a religious exemption used by a record-high percentage of Florida parents to get their children out of state-required school immunizations.
The pushback apparently has paid off.
“This is not going to be heard this session,” said Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who has also been the target of a vicious social media campaign for sponsoring legislation (SB 64), eliminating the exemption.
“My bill wasn’t on the agenda, but we had about 25 people speak against it at a Broward County delegation meeting. I had already met with most of the folks and said I look forward to a dialogue. But they don’t want dialogue.”
Religious exemptions are fairly easy for parents to get from their county health departments. These exemptions have climbed in Florida while the anti-vaccination movement strengthens, even as the totals for medical exemptions from vaccines have changed little.
Private schools report more far religious exemptions than public schools across Florida. But Sarasota County leads the state with 7.1% of public school kindergartners unvaccinated because of religious reasons and 4.2% of seventh-graders, according to the state’s Health Department.
New York earlier this year became the fifth state — California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia already have laws — requiring that children in public schools be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical reason.
New York’s action came after a measles outbreak in 28 states, including Florida, sickened more than 1,000 people. The federal Centers for Disease Control updated the confirmed cases this month to 31 states reporting measles this year, the largest outbreak in the U.S. since 1992.
But along with the entourage in Broward, anti-vaccination parents and activists have jammed legislative delegation meetings in Manatee and Escambia counties in recent weeks, condemning Book and her bill.
Book’s fellow lawmakers have mostly shied away from discussing the measure during these hearings, despite the steady parade of opponents testifying against it.
“Anyone can file a bill and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the bill will move or the bill will get passed,” Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, said at the Manatee session.
At various meetings, several lawmakers also pointed out that Book’s bill had not been introduced in the House, reducing its chances for advancing. Book now says she’s been told by Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, chair of the Health Policy Committee, that she will not schedule the bill for a hearing.
Harrell did not return calls from GateHouse Media seeking to confirm her comments. But those opposed to required vaccinations say they intend on staying vigilant when lawmakers convene the 2020 session in January.
“This bill is attacking a minority, which just wants to hold onto their freedom,” said Mary Beth Michael of Daytona Beach, a founder of Florida Health Action Network which, with another anti-vaccination organization, the Florida Freedom Alliance, has helped drive the protests at county delegation meetings and, earlier this year, at the state Capitol on other bills before lawmakers.
Michael pointed out that many adults aren’t up to date on their vaccinations, some who could be teachers, bus drivers, school janitors and others who come in contact with students. She said there was no need to single out parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids.
“They’re coming after adults next. If you go to the CDC website, they have now instituted an adult-vaccine schedule,” she added, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control, warning it could someday be used as a requirement to obtain a driver’s license or other privileges.
Indeed, anti-vaccination parents speaking out against Book’s bill cite a range of beliefs about immunizations, some clearly driven by a thriving community on the internet and across social media. Others are parents of children with health problems that they contend were caused by vaccinations.
Politically, opponents cross the spectrum, from religious conservatives who claim aborted fetuses are used in some vaccines to liberals who question many conventional health treatments.
But for Republican lawmakers who control the Florida Legislature, Book’s bill is easily categorized as a blow against religious freedom and parental choice, potentially dooming it even without the organized campaign that has been mounted in opposition.
The measure has emerged, though, at a time many public officials worry about the reappearance of such once almost eradicated illnesses as mumps and measles.
The Florida Department of Health reported that last year 25 of Florida’s 67 counties failed to meet the state’s goal of having 95% of kindergarten students vaccinated. Seventh grade, the other age marker when vaccination status is reported, fared better, with 61 counties meeting or topping the 95% goal.
But the 2.9% of kindergartners who received religious exemptions from being vaccinated was an all-time high, DOH reported. Similarly, the 1.7% of seventh-graders successfully getting religious exemptions is a state record.
Those percentages represent 6,402 kindergartners out of 224,641 students entering school and 4,217 seventh-graders among the state’s 243,835 in that grade. These numbers have climbed significantly in recent years, even as medical exemptions haven’t changed much.
Those concerned about health risks also point out that religious exemptions often are clustered in individual schools or communities in a county, sparking the possibility that an outbreak of any illness could spread quickly.
While acknowledging that her religious exemption proposal has no chance, Book said she still hope to get lawmakers to address the potential problem facing the state.
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