Hundreds of vaccine-skeptical families crammed into the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon where they battled a bill that would give the state authority over whether children receive medical exemptions for mandatory vaccines.
The massive crowd lined up for nearly four hours to oppose Senate Bill 276, authored by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, at a hearing in the Senate Committee on Health.
The proposal would restrict how doctors administer medical exemptions for vaccines in California, taking that authority out of the hands of doctors and placing it with officials at the Department of Public Health.
Pan, a doctor, wrote the bill to constrain “unscrupulous physicians” who he argues have granted unnecessary medical exemptions for vaccines. Vaccines are most effective when a large majority of the population is immunized from preventable diseases, and he worries excessive exemptions put medically vulnerable kids at risk.
Anti-vaccine protesters called the bill “draconian” as they told personal stories about children who suffered illnesses after receiving vaccines. One accused lawmakers of being “brainwashed.”
For those who doubt the medical necessity and safety of vaccines — including mothers who easily rattle off the ingredients in each vaccination and homeopathic doctors promoting alternative medicine — the bill compromises the parent-doctor relationship and their freedom to choose how their children are treated.
“We believe the relationship between a patient and their doctor is sacred,” said Nicole Shorrock, a pediatrician who testified against the bill. “Patients have a right to have their medical treatment determined by their doctor, not a governmental appointee. This bill will essentially destroy the sanctity of a doctor-patient relationship.”
She and other opponents were countered by dozens of doctors wearing white coats who urged the committee to pass the bill to prevent outbreaks of debilitating and preventable illnesses.
The CDC has reported more than 695 measles cases across the country this year. Three cases were confirmed in Sacramento County.
For the parents of children with conditions such as cancer or autoimmune disorders, Pan’s bill represents an end to “fake” exemptions that leave their children vulnerable to communicable and preventable diseases.
“Vaccines save lives and are essential in helping us control diseases that not long ago were mortal threats to public health,” said Sergio Flores, a doctor and representative of the California Medical Association.
Pan’s bill passed the committee by a 6-2 vote after nearly six hours of testimony and discussion. It must pass the full Senate, the Assembly and be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom before it becoming law.
SB 276 would require doctors to file a uniform document requesting a medical exemption with the state department. The department would determine whether to grant the exemption.
The new process would begin by Jan. 1, 2021. The department would have to maintain a database of which doctors administer vaccinations and for what reasons.
If an exemption is rejected, the doctor would have an opportunity to appeal the denial.
The legislation follows a 2015 law also authored by Pan that eliminated personal beliefs from a list of reasons to not vaccinate a child enrolling in California schools. His new proposal woudl further restrict opportunities for exemptions.
The proposal “maintains and restores integrity,” Pan said, and “ensures that students who truly need a medical exemption receive an exemption.”
Medical exemptions, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are intended for children who could experience serious harm from a vaccine. Those include kids who’ve previously had life-threatening reactions following a vaccine, or are undergoing chemotherapy, to name a few.
Some of the bill’s opponents at the hearing blamed vaccines for causing life-changing medical conditions. They carried toddlers as they testified or hoisted posters showing pictures of their children.
Among the moms desperate to halt SB 276 was Christina Mecklenburg, who said her 2-year-old daughter Hayden suffered from side effects that left her cross-eyed following an MMR vaccine in 2018.
According to Mecklenburg, who said she vaccinated her two older children, Hayden was hospitalized following the vaccine and endured MRI tests to determine what happened.
“As a mom you’re like ‘what is going on, why is this happening to her’?” Mecklenburg said.
A doctor later gave the girl a permanent medical exemption from mandatory vaccines, finding the MMR shot triggered a nerve disorder.