Four years after California led the nation in rolling back religious exemptions for vaccines, lawmakers are pushing to tighten remaining medical exemptions after a handful of skeptic doctors helped anti-vax parents exploit a loophole that’s resulted in hundreds of schools no longer having immunity from dangerous diseases like measles.
On Friday, the bill, which would create oversight of the medical exemption process and allow investigation of exploitative doctors, faces its last committee hurdle before going to the full legislature for final votes. Gov. Gavin Newsom has said if passed, he’ll sign it into law, in spite of ferocious opposition from anti-vaccine parents and lobbying by celebrity skeptics including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jessica Biel. Activists rallied on Wednesday at the California capitol in an event they called "The Last Stand," with other protesters also coordinating this week.
Even before becoming law, the bill has already inspired rule changes in New York, and more states may follow as record-breaking measles outbreaks highlight how disease can overtake communities with low vaccination rates. Only two states, West Virginia and Mississippi, have never given parents with healthy schoolchildren room to wriggle out of vaccine requirements; exemptions based on a personal belief, religion, or an unverified doctor’s note remain the norm in most of the country.
In 2015, California was the first state to repeal religious and personal belief exemptions after a measles outbreak at Disneyland; several other states, including New York in June, have followed suit. The 2015 law was initially a success — more kids entering schools were vaccinated. But since then, anti-vax parents and doctors have turned to medical exemptions, which have quadrupled.
“We want to be sure that children who genuinely need a medical exemption get one. They need them,” Dr. Richard Pan, the state senator behind the bill, told BuzzFeed News. “That means we can’t have a bunch of other kids, whose parents basically bought the medical exemption, who don’t really need them.”
New data on the immunization of 2018–19 California kindergarteners illustrates the problem. Statewide, the immunization rate is high, but for the last two years in a row, it's been trending downward. More than 600 schools around the state reported that their campus no longer has herd immunity protection against measles, with less than 93% of kindergartners up-to-date on their MMR shots. More than 100 schools reported that at least 10% of their students are unvaccinated because of medical exemptions. Statistically, just 1% of kids are likely to have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated, Pan said.
That adds up to a dangerous situation for children who can’t be safely vaccinated, and it’s now up to the state to step in and protect them, he added.
“They need to be able to go to school and be safe as well. All children deserve to be safe at school,” he said.
The bill aims to create that safer environment in several ways: Medical exemptions would be tracked in a state database, and public health officials would flag those that required review. That review would be done by a doctor or nurse working for the state, and it would begin whenever a school’s immunization rate drops below 95%, a school fails to report its immunization rate, or one doctor writes five or more exemptions in a year.
Decisions by the state’s health department would be appealable to an independent panel of physicians, who would consider whether the doctor who signed off on the medical exemption was acting reasonably to protect a child’s health and safety.
The bill also gives the California Medical Board new power to investigate doctors who are unethically gaming the medical exemption system. Pan pointed to doctors advertised as “vaccine friendly” online and offering medical exemptions for a fee.
“If a physician was selling handicapped placards … we’d be pretty outraged about that. Especially if you actually need a handicap placard and you can’t find a parking space,” Pan said. “In this case, we’re talking about actually putting someone at risk, not just access to something you should have.”
Those doctors are a minority, but they're capable of doing outsize damage, Pan added. In San Diego, one doctor was responsible for a third of medical exemptions, the Voice of San Diego found. Five doctors, several of whom had been singled out on social media by parents as "vaccine flexible," signed more than half of the medical exemptions at Bay Area schools, the Mercury News reported.
But currently, to obtain medical records that would reveal misconduct, the medical board must gain permission from parents, who can refuse to participate in an investigation. That’s limited the board's ability to crack down on anti-vax doctors who abuse the system.
With their pathway to legally getting out of vaccines coming under threat, anti-vax parents have for months been mobilizing on social media. California has long been a center of the anti-vaccine movement in the US, with generations of hippies skipping shots in favor of alternative medicine, and Hollywood celebrities pushing false claims linking autism and vaccines into the mainstream. Outside of the state’s liberal strongholds, conservative anti-vaxxers have championed their beliefs as medical choice and balked against vaccine mandates as government overreach. Dr. Bob Sears, the author of The Vaccine Book who has promoted delayed shot schedules popular with vaccine-hesitant parents, practices medicine in Orange County.
Letter writing campaigns have for months targeted lawmakers considered friendly to their cause, and one anti-vaccine activist was cited for assault after confronting and pushing Pan near the capitol last week. The senator also criticized a poster used by some activists featuring his face branded in red with what he said looked like blood spatter. (A protest organizer said the image was not meant to look like blood or promote violence.)
As the bill has moved through the legislature this year, hundreds of people have turned out to Sacramento to protest.
Often accompanied by their children, anti-vax parents have called the bill discriminatory and draconian, and compared it to what’s been done by Nazi or communist regimes. Some have attended hearings wearing yellow vests, a nod to populist protests in France. Multiple parents have told legislators they’ll move out of the state if medical exemptions are regulated.
“If this bill passes, my family will be forced to flee the state,” one mom told the California Assembly’s health committee in June.
When the committee approved it, screams broke out.
“You’re going to kill more children!” one protester yelled.
“You should be ashamed!” another called.
Pan is quick to note that the bill isn’t a vaccine mandate, and parents are still free to choose what shots their children receive.
“They talk to their doctor, they have to give consent that their child’s vaccinated. Their doctor talks to them about the risk and benefits of the vaccine, and the parents decide,” he said. “That decision stands. There’s no penalty for them making that decision, there’s no fine or jail or anything like that.”
But there is a consequence, he added, which is the ability of their child to attend public or private school. Within the legislature, he said most of his colleagues understand the science behind that, and discussions have focused on how to balance government intrusion against public safety.
But his work on vaccine laws has also gotten him death threats, and at recent hearings, some anti-vax parents have turned to personal attacks. Pan said the job of lawmakers is to weigh different priorities and perspectives, but bullying and intimidation are inappropriate.
“That’s not how we should be making public policy,” he said. “We should be looking at the facts.”