By: Emma Woidtke

As a young child, there were few things that I detested more than going to the doctor to get my routine vaccinations. And if I am being honest, I have fainted at the sight of the needle as an adult. However, the importance of receiving vaccinations vastly outranks my personal fears because vaccines keep me safe from preventable diseases. More importantly, when the rate of vaccination is high in a community, those who cannot receive vaccinations for medical reasons receive protection as well. This protection, commonly known as “herd immunity,” helps to protect vulnerable members of our society with weakened immune systems or who cannot receive a vaccination for legitimate medical reasons – like those undergoing chemotherapy, those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, and babies. Prior to the passage of SB 276, herd immunity in California schools was in grave danger.

In 2015, the California Legislature enacted a law that ended the use of personal belief exemptions to exempt school-aged children from receiving vaccinations. The 2015 law was introduced in response to a measles outbreak in California. One of the purported purposes of the 2015 law was to increase the herd immunity rate in schools, which in turn would protect immunocompromised children. In theory, the 2015 law left medical-based exemptions as the only option for families seeking vaccination exemptions. However, some unscrupulous doctors in California seized on a new business opportunity created by the 2015 law and began selling illegitimate medical-based exemptions. A result of the increase in these illegitimate medical exemptions included a high concentration of unvaccinated children in classrooms, deteriorating the herd immunity rate.

In response to this, Senator Richard Pan (D – Sacramento), a pediatrician and the author of the 2015 legislation, introduced SB 276. SB 276 functions as a check on doctors and schools. When the vaccination rate of school drops below 95% or when a doctor issues more than 5 exemptions in a year, SB 276 triggers a review by the California Department of Public Health. SB 276 seeks to protect the extremely important herd immunity rate in schools while preserving medical-based exemptions for those who actually need them.

Hearings on SB 276 caused an impassioned uproar at the State Capitol this summer as thousands of parents argued their children would lose their exemptions under the new law. One of the protests even led to criminal charges against an anti-vaccination parent after a menstrual cup containing human blood was thrown onto the Senate Floor while lawmakers were in session. After a series of negotiations between the author and Governor Newsom, SB 276 reached its final form and was signed into law.

Many of the arguments raised in opposition to SB 276 mirrored the arguments from the 2015 law that removed the personal belief exemptions. However, the California Court of Appeals settled questions that arose after the passage of the 2015 law. The court found that the state’s interest in preserving health and safety under the state’s police power was strong enough to uphold the law. The resurrection of these arguments under SB 276 was improperly targeted.

SB 276 works as a check on the process of administering medical-based exemptions. It does not change the rights that parents have under the law to access medical exemptions for their children. Where a legitimate medical need exists, parents and their children still have access and the ability to obtain a necessary exemption. In protecting the process and requiring review, herd immunity remains a viable defense against preventable diseases. While I–like many others–do not enjoy getting vaccinated, the risk of the healthy population choosing not to receive vaccinations is too high. This risk is especially important when looking at the need to protect those who cannot receive vaccinations. This risk and need to keep herd immunity rates up extends to children in California schools.

You can listen to my interview with Thomas Gerhart about SB 276 on this week’s episode of In Session.

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