SF Chronicle on COVID vaccine exemptions: unvaccinated people put young children at risk

Editorial: Vaccine mandates work. But not if California gives fake ‘personal belief exemptions’ a pass

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board, Oct. 17, 2021
Lower doses of vaccine work for children.

In January 2015, an outbreak of measles that started at Disneyland in Anaheim spread across California and eventually throughout North America. All told, the virus made its way to seven U.S. states, Mexico and Canada, infecting 159 people, the vast majority of whom were unvaccinated.

A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study of the Americans who were infected found that most were either too young to receive a vaccine or declined to be vaccinated, citing personal reasons. The natural conclusion was that unvaccinated people put young children at risk. And that “personal belief exemptions” from vaccine mandates can be dangerous loopholes that empower irrational objections to inoculation and endanger public health.

In the aftermath of this outbreak and several others in California, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician, introduced legislation to crack down on lax personal belief and medical exemptions for otherwise mandatory school vaccinations. That bill, SB277, received huge pushback from the burgeoning anti-vax movement, with actress Jenny McCarthy among others, stirring up opposition. But the effort was eventually victorious; it is now very difficult in California for parents to get their kids a medical or personal exemption from traditional childhood immunizations for 10 serious illnesses (such as polio) without legitimate reasons.

Just because your kid is allergic to cats doesn’t mean they’re allergic to vaccines. They need to get their shots.

And yet concessions made to pass the bill now have implications for COVID. SB277 did not anticipate future outbreaks of new diseases that would require vaccination. As such, the law includes an amendment that allows the governor and public authorities to unilaterally issue new vaccine mandates “only if exemptions are allowed for both medical reasons and personal beliefs.”

And so, with COVID exemptions, we’re effectively back to square one. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his public health authorities can (and did) mandate Food and Drug Administration-approved COVID shots as a prerequisite for attending in-person schooling. But removing the same specious personal belief and medical exemptions that we did in 2016 will require the Legislature to act.

It should. Californians have already proven themselves adept at exploiting the old exemptions. And the incoherent opposition to safe and effective vaccines, sadly, is now stronger with backers who are far more formidable than McCarthy.

All indications are that COVID will become endemic, meaning it will be with us in one form or another in perpetuity. While this sounds terrifying, it doesn’t have to be. Vaccines can protect us from serious COVID illness and death. But none of us are born immune. Just like with measles and polio, each passing generation will need to be inoculated. Without vaccines, this virus will continue to kill. Which is why mandating shots for the young is so essential.

Schools are the logical place for society to make its stand and stop COVID’s deadly rampage for good. Everyone is entitled to an education, but vaccination is an appropriate exchange. Moreover, the current status quo of constant testing and quarantines is unsustainable.

“Think about how much schools are spending on COVID control,” says Pan. “Those are resources pulled away from primary education. Vaccinating kids means less spending on COVID control and more on their education.”

The Legislature is out of session until 2022. But when it returns, amending state public health laws for the COVID-era will be imperative. California doesn’t just need to pave the way for mass COVID vaccinations, it needs to give public health authorities the flexibility they need to deal with future emergencies.

What happens when a new pandemic arises that requires a new vaccine? The legislative process takes time. And in public health emergencies, time is too precious to waste fighting the Jenny McCarthys of the world.

The Pfizer COVID vaccine is now fully approved by the FDA for people age 16 and over. Emergency authorization for kids 12-15 is in effect, and it could be granted for kids age 5-11 by Halloween.

Vaccine mandates work. They can and will help neuter COVID and keep it from re-emerging as a deadly threat. They can do the same for future infectious diseases where safe and effective vaccines are made available. But danger will linger if California doesn’t put a permanent stop to the fake excuses for avoiding vaccines.

This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.