DENVER -- Hundreds of people came to the Colorado State Capitol for a second year in a row to speak out against vaccine legislation.
After a bill to tighten up the waiver system for school vaccines in the state failed last session, this month, Democratic lawmakers introduced a new bill that is noticeably different than last session's.
This time around, parents who don’t want to have their children vaccinated can either have an immunization provider sign a waiver, or they will have to watch an educational video about vaccines and then sign the waiver themselves.
Senate Bill 163 is one of three bills dealing with vaccines that have been introduced this session.
A second bill would prohibit employers from requiring their employees to get vaccinated in order to be able to work.
A third bill would offer more consumer protections for parents who do not want to have their children vaccinated, among other things.
More than 360 people signed up to testify either for or against the School Early Immunization bill Wednesday. There were so many people who attended the hearing, in fact, that two overflow rooms were opened up for people to watch the committee proceedings.
Many families brought their children with them to the Capitol and families were camped out in the hallways while they waited for their turn to testify.
The case for the vaccine bill
Supporters of the bill say it strikes the right balance between health and safety and parental rights.
“Whether or not to vaccinate your child is a parent’s decision. This bill does not make vaccines mandatory, it respects parents’ decisions,” said Christopher Stille, a primary care pediatrician at Children’s Health Colorado who attended the hearing to testify in favor of the bill.
Immunologist Aimee Bernard, meanwhile, said this bill will help offer more protections for families of sick or immune-compromised patients who cannot get vaccines by surrounding them with others who are vaccinated, lowering the probability that they will be exposed to diseases.
Like many, Bernard chose to vaccinate her children and said there are a number of forms she has to fill out as a parent so she believes the waiver won’t be too burdensome to other families.
“All of the exemptions that they would want are still in place. There’s medical, there’s personal, there’s a religious – those are all there, this is just a form,” she said.
Meanwhile, Stille, who also represents the Colorado chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics, hopes the education module option will inform parents about the benefits of vaccines.
“It’s not going to harm their children to be educated about what they need and what the medical and scientific community feels is right,” Stille said. “This module is helpful so that the parents have all of the facts so that they can make the right decision about immunizing their child.”
As a state, Colorado is ranked worst in the nation for childhood immunizations, including the number of Kindergartners who have been vaccinated for diseases such as measles and chickenpox.
Gov. Jared Polis, who was opposed to the vaccine bill last session and who said he considers himself pro-choice when it comes to immunizations, has indicated he will support the new version of the bill.
The case against the vaccine bill
One by one during Wednesday’s hearing, hundreds of parents testified against the vaccine bill, expressing concerns about government overreach.
Some parents shared stories of how vaccinations injured their children and how they want the state to respect their wishes.
Sarah Carrasco, whose 18-year-old son has autism and other health issues, is most concerned about the data-tracking portion of the bill.
“We’re concerned that if our kids are on a list or in a data tracking database, what if that gets hacked? What if somebody releases our public information that has our address on it and our phone number on it, or our kids birth dates,” Carrasco said.
The data-tracking goes back to exemption waivers parents who don’t want to immunize their children would need to fill out if the bill is passed. Those exemptions would be submitted to an immunization tracking system for the state.
“This is a vaccine mandate disguised as a data tracking piece of legislation,” she said.
Additionally, Carrasco said she has also called around to different pediatricians to find out whether they would sign waivers and have been told that the doctors will not.
Mary Salfi, meanwhile, who said her son also had severe reactions to vaccinations as a child, added she believes the bill is too broad and that there are too many unanswered questions for how the program would work.
“I have read this bill no less than 10 times and every time I read it, I found one more question, one more confusing statement,” Salfi said.
People on both sides of the issue were both passionate and well-researched. Parents and experts stayed in the Capitol all day for the chance to have their voices heard.
If nothing else, Wednesday’s hearing served as a good civics lesson for the dozens of children hanging out around the Colorado capitol waiting for their parents to testify.
The bill hearing ended around 1:30 a.m. Thursday, passing the Senate Appropriations Committee in a 3-2 vote.