OLYMPIA — Lawmakers began wrestling Friday with how to balance their desire to support parents and protect public health in response to the most significant measles outbreak in the state in a quarter century.
Hundreds of people descended upon the Capitol for a hearing on a bill to end parents’ ability to keep their school-aged children from getting a required vaccination for measles based on personal or philosophical objections.
Most of them came to show opposition to the legislation crafted as the number of confirmed measles cases stood at 52 on Friday, 51 of them in Clark County in southwest Washington. There’s been one in King County and four in Oregon.
“This bill is important to my community that has been overwhelmed by measles in this area,” said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, at the outset of the half-hour hearing. He is the bill’s prime sponsor. There are 14 co-sponsors including three Snohomish County representatives.
Harris said he backs empowering parents to make health decisions for their children. But he said there are infants and children with suppressed immune systems “who are locked up in their homes” rather risking exposure.
“We are concerned about the freedom of choice of all children,” he said.
Measles is a “totally preventable” disease, said John Weisman, secretary of the state Department of Health, in his testimony. Vaccines are “extremely safe and highly effective,” he said. “The benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.”
Those risks cannot be ignored, opponents said.
“Vaccines are not safe and effective for everyone. This cannot be a one size fits all,” said Toni Bark, leader of the Center for Disease Prevention and Reversal, a homeopathic organization in Illinois. “If you eliminate these exemptions you are basically making a large minority of people susceptible to very serious risks including death.”
Asked afterward about these concerns, Harris said: “They want a perfect vaccine, it’s not perfect. It’s science.”
State law requires children attending public or private schools, or a licensed day care center, to be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps and pertussis (whooping cough). They also can enroll if they show proof of acquired immunity to the diseases.
Parents can obtain an exemption from vaccination for one or all of those diseases based on medical reasons, religious beliefs, and personal or philosophical objections.
The vast majority of exemptions are granted for personal beliefs.
In the 2017 school year, 3.7 percent of kindergartners statewide, 3,087 students, had an exemption for personal beliefs. In Snohomish County, 371 kindergartners, or 4.6 percent of the county total, had personal exemptions.
Under House Bill 1638, parents could no longer obtain such an exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine. They could still get a medical or religious exemption. And a personal exemption could be obtained for other vaccinations.
The room was packed for Friday’s 8 a.m. hearing in the House Health Care and Wellness Committee. Some arrived as early as 6 a.m. to get a seat while hundreds more, including dozens of children, formed a line which ran from the front door of the hearing room, down a long hallway and outside.
While they did not get inside, most in line wanted to tell lawmakers why they did not want to vaccinate their children and to share personal tales of harm.
Mary Holland, a professor from New York University, did testify. Noting that her son suffered neurological injury from a vaccine, she advised lawmakers to focus on controlling the outbreak rather than the behavior of parents in the room and in line.
Their deep-seated beliefs will not dissipate with the passing of a law, she said.
They are “conscientious objectors” and will not comply, she said.
Since the start of the year, Clark County Public Health has identified 51 confirmed cases of measles and another 13 suspected cases, most of those among children younger than 11. In 44 of the confirmed cases, the patients had not been immunized.
The total is the most confirmed cases in the state since 1991, according to the Department of Health. It has prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency.
Of three outbreaks in the past decade, this one is “larger and infecting people faster,” the committee was told.
Snohomish County had a brush with measles in July 2018. A child who was part of a group visiting multiple states for a summer program was confirmed to have measles. Within a few days, an adult and three other minors were confirmed cases, according to the Snohomish Health District.
The House committee is likely to advance a slightly revised version of the bill next week. Democratic leaders are confident it can pass if it reaches the floor.
After the meeting, Harris said he wants to make changes to tighten language for obtaining a religious exemption. And he wants to push for better recordkeeping at schools to reduce the number of students allowed into classes before proving they’ve obtained required vaccinations or are exempt.
Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, a committee member and co-sponsor of the bill, tried unsuccessfully in 2015 to repeal the personal exemption for all vaccines. The dividing line on this matter is pretty much the same now as then.
“I appreciate people’s passion for the issue,” she said as the families exited the hearing room. “I suspect not many minds were changed.”