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Column: California is headed for another bruising vaccine fight. Newsom should embrace a school mandate

People clap as a person walks in front of them.
State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) prepares to announce a bill that adds COVID-19 vaccines to California’s list of required inoculations for attending K-12 schools at Arleta High School on Jan. 24 in Los Angeles.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Children are getting COVID-19, being hospitalized and dying. Sure, it’s in relatively small numbers. But how many kids’ deaths must there be to count as significant?

Just one if you’re the parent. Or a brother or sister or a grandparent.

So, when opponents of mandatory vaccinations as a condition for being allowed in a classroom protest that COVID-19 is not a big deal for children, I think about the impact on my family if a grandkid were to come down deathly sick.

Exact data are almost impossible to obtain, in large part because some states refuse to report timely and accurate stats.

But nearly 6.3 million children have been infected with the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 22,400 have been hospitalized. And at least 1,140 have died.

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Yes, those numbers pale in comparison to the roughly 72 million total cases and 871,000 deaths nationwide.

But if California can reduce severe illness among children from COVID-19 by requiring vaccinations in order to attend public or private schools, why not?

Because — aside from whether it’s truly a big problem — parents should make the final decisions on their children’s healthcare, opponents contend. Not government.

State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) announces a bill to add COVID-19 vaccines to California’s list of required inoculations for attending K-12 schools.

Even if the parents have bought into misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines? Well, OK. But that doesn’t mean their kids should be allowed to attend school and endanger other children by spreading the disease.

The California Legislature is headed for another bruising fight over vaccine requirements.

Two bills have been introduced. One is aimed at pressuring parents into getting their kids vaccinated and thereby making classrooms safer. The other would allow teens to get vaccinated without their parents’ permission.

Senate Bill 871 by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) would add COVID-19 to the list of diseases a K-12 student must be inoculated against to attend public or private school.

Schoolchildren already must be vaccinated for polio, chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Wish we’d had all those protections when I was a kid. Would have saved a lot of sick time and worse.

Most significantly, Pan’s bill would treat the COVID-19 vaccination like the other shots: There could be no exemption for a “personal belief,” a previously much abused excuse for avoiding inoculation.

Medical exemptions would still be allowed. But a 2019 Pan bill virtually eliminated a budding industry in medical exemption mills.

The other bill, SB 866 by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would allow kids 12 and older to get vaccinated for any disease without their parents’ knowledge.

Undercutting parental control seems a bit dicey. It makes me wince. But we already allow teens to obtain an abortion, birth control and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases without telling their parents. They’re afraid to.

The bill is the first to be introduced this year by a group of Democratic lawmakers pledging to strengthen vaccination laws and target misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

If a teen is afraid of contracting COVID-19 for sound reason, and a parent doesn’t get it, the kid should be able to act alone.

“COVID-19 is a deadly virus for the unvaccinated, and it’s unconscionable for teens to be blocked from the vaccine because a parent either refuses or cannot take their child to a vaccination site,” Wiener said introducing the bill.

Pan, a pediatrician, has been a vaccine crusader for years.

After a widespread measles outbreak began at Disneyland in 2014, the senator pushed through legislation eliminating the personal belief exemption for required inoculations.

But part of the deal was that if any additional disease was added to the list of mandates, a personal belief exemption would be allowed unless the Legislature specifically denied it.

That’s the provision Pan is trying to erase now.

By 2019, Pan noticed that parents were turning to medical exemption mills to avoid vaccinations for their kids.

“Medical exemptions tripled,” he recalls. “It was just a small handful of doctors. We had to clean that up.”

They did by limiting the number of exemptions a doctor could grant without being investigated by the state.

That pretty much ended the abuse. Doctors didn’t want to risk losing their licenses.

But the legislative fight led to Pan being roughed up politically and on the street by anti-vaxxers. There were two attempts to recall him that went nowhere.

One day when the senator was walking to a restaurant for lunch near the Capitol, he was shoved from behind on the sidewalk. He has regularly been compared to Hitler.

During the 2019 Senate debate, a vaccine protester in the balcony tossed a menstrual cup containing blood onto the chamber floor.

So, there’s a bit of trepidation inside the Capitol heading into the next vaccination brawl.

The most outspoken legislative opponent of Pan’s bill is Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher of Yuba City.

“This is not anti-vax,” he told me. “It’s not about the value of vaccines. It’s about whether or not parents fundamentally have the right to make decisions over their children’s healthcare and whether a state should hold up their education over a vaccination.”

Moreover, he added: “Children have a very, very low risk of having serious complications from COVID. It’s very low numbers.”

Pan’s reply:

“There’s nothing in the bill that says parents can’t keep their children from being vaccinated. But there’s consequences. They’ll have to go into independent study or home school. We’ve a responsibility to keep children who are at school safe.”

Pan adds what most people realize: “If you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to catch the disease, and less likely to transmit it to someone else.” Cases are also much less severe among the vaccinated.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is moving toward requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for school students. But he seems to like the idea of a personal belief exemption.

Newsom should embrace Pan’s bill and Wiener’s.


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