DENVER – After hours of debate, Colorado’s Democrat-led House advanced a bill Tuesday to raise the state’s child immunization rates by adding new requirements for parents who choose to opt out of routine vaccinations on religious or personal grounds.
Efforts in past sessions to adopt new opt-out requirements have generated intensely vocal opposition from parents and anti-vaccination advocacy groups, with hundreds of opponents crowding the Capitol to testify against them. A similar protest was held outside the Capitol on Sunday, when the Democrat-led Senate passed the current bill.
A final House vote would send the legislation, if unchanged, to the governor’s desk.
Coronavirus-related restrictions prevented similar gatherings inside the building, and opponents accused Democrats of purposely limiting opportunities to testify to 90 minutes per side to get the proposal to the finish line. Rules adopted after the Legislature reconvened after a 10-week hiatus caused by the pandemic have limited in-person testimony on all legislation for health reasons.
Current law requires that students’ parents simply submit a statement to a school professing religious or personal objections to having their children vaccinated. The new bill would require parents to get a signature from a vaccine provider or watch a state health department video on vaccinations to obtain an exemption.
Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica, a trauma nurse who co-sponsored the bill, argued the coronavirus pandemic underscored the urgency of addressing Colorado’s status as one of the lowest-ranking states for immunizations. The bill aims to increase school vaccine rates to 95%.
In 2017, just over 87% of Colorado kindergarten students had vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Immunization Survey. The U.S. average was 91.5%, and only Indiana and Missouri had lower vaccination rates than Colorado.
“We’ve seen our health care system come to its knees already with dealing with the COVID pandemic that were dealing with right now,” Mullica said. “There’s no way we can deal with anything else.”
The debate over vaccination exemptions came during a pandemic in which information from health officials has been interpreted in an increasingly partisan fashion. Colorado Republicans generally opposed the stay-at-home orders and business closures adopted by Democratic Rep. Jared Polis to combat the coronavirus.
Republicans complained Tuesday that neither their party nor its constituents were given a chance to either help craft or testify on the bill. They also argued that the bill was a tool to slowly chip away at non-medical vaccine exemptions. Mullica said the bill’s sponsors compromised in order to keep the exemptions.
GOP lawmakers also objected to the state having access to data about individuals’ objections to having their children vaccinated. The bill would require medical professionals to submit immunization or medical or non-medical exemption data to a state immunization tracking system.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.