Lawmakers look to weaken vaccination requirements

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A bill to weaken the state’s vaccination requirements experienced significant movement through the House of Delegates this week. After being advanced by the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, the debate which began there spilled over into the House Chamber during Friday’s floor session. 

Proposed by Del. Laura Kimble, R-Harrison, HB 5105 seeks to eliminate the vaccination requirement for all non-public school students, with the exception of students who participate in sanctioned athletic events. An amendment added during the meeting of the Judiciary Committee narrowed that exception as well, applying it to only those students who participate in WVSSAC-sanctioned events. 

The bill was advanced to second reading in the House Chamber on Friday, at which point additional amendments were debated. The first proposal, made by Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, sought to reinstall that exception in full, and expand it to include all extracurricular activities, not just sports. 

“If the requirement only pertained to students participating in West Virginia’s SSAC-sponsored events, you’d leave out a lot of other types of events like chess club, science fairs – other things of that nature,” Pushkin explained. “My amendment uses the language as [the bill] came out of Health (committee): ‘Public school extracurricular or co-curricular activities.’”

Speaking in opposition of Pushkin’s amendment was Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, who said, “One of the things we talked about in Judiciary was, ‘What is an extracurricular activity, and what is a co-curricular activity?’ It could include a lot of different things.”

“While I’m sure chess club is exciting, I don’t think too many of us would classify it as a contact sport unless you get really mad at your opponent,” Steele continued. “I think what this amendment is intended to do is exclude even more kids from doing something.”

To close debate, Pushkin said, “I respect the opinion of [Steele]. I value his friendship, and I think he’s a very smart guy. If I was seeking a legal opinion, he might be one of the first people I would call. However, if I want an opinion on stopping the spread of communicable diseases, I would not call a lawyer – I would call an epidemiologist, and I don’t know a single epidemiologist that thinks it’s a good idea to weaken our public health laws in regards to vaccinations.”

“This is a compromise amendment,” Pushkin continued. “This keeps in the bill the exemptions for children that are in parochial schools and private schools. It simply says that if they want to participate in these activities with children at the public school, then they have to do what they’ve been doing for years – what we’ve all been doing for years – and get these vaccines.”

“It’s not about excluding children, it’s about protecting children,” Pushkin adde, “And protecting society as a whole.”

Pushkin’s amendment was rejected by a vote of 63 to 32.

The next amendment, proposed by Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, sought to provide a blanket religious vaccination exemption to all children, regardless of age and whether they attend a public or private school. 

“This may be seen by some as an ‘anti-vaccine’ amendment,” Kirby said. “But it is not. It’s an amendment that secures and recognizes our religious freedoms.”

As explained by Kirby, under his amendment, in order for a child to be exempt from vaccination, a parent must simply provide a letter to “the principal, or the state-funded day care provider” stating that they have a religious objection to vaccinations. 

Del. Bob Fehrenbacher, R-Wood, speaks in opposition of Kirby’s amendment.

Pushkin was the first to question Kirby.

“What religion in particular prohibits the use of vaccine?” Pushkin asked.

“There’s actually several,” Kirby replied, before citing the Catholic religion as an example. 

According to Kirby, Catholics are opposed to utilizing vaccines which contain “embryonic and fetal cells from elective abortions.”

“Those aren’t used in vaccines,” Pushkin said. “I’ve not heard of any real prohibitions within the Catholic Church to these types of vaccines.”

Several delegates – including both Steele and Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha – argued that “45 other states” offer religious vaccination exemptions. And while many other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia to name a few, do allow for situational religious exemptions to individual vaccinations, no other state allows for blanket religious exemptions to all vaccinations. 

Speaking in opposition of the amendment was Del. Anitra Hamilton, D-Monongalia, who said, “We have to put forth legislation that is going to protect our most vulnerable.”

“We have maternal deserts, we have food deserts, and we have the audacity to talk about removing vaccinations?” Hamilton asked rhetorically. “We must do better.”

Steele then spoke again, this time in support.

“I’m not a medical doctor,” Steele began. “I’m a lawyer, and I don’t just play one on T.V. One of the things that constitution of ours does say is that every child has a right to a free and public education, regardless of their vaccination status.”

“But we don’t provide that to them,” Steele added. “We don’t provide that at all. As a matter of fact we try to paint a circle around them like we’re living in the Book of Leviticus, and call them unclean and put them out to camp.”

According to Steele, he visited Virginia last weekend, and didn’t see any “hospitals full of kids with measles and mumps.” However, Steele did not say if he actually went to any hospitals. 

Rising in opposition was Del. Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley, who said, “I’ve been fighting the fight for polio for a long time. I grew up in a third-world country, and I’ve seen polio first hand. We are extremely close to eradicating the second disease ever – we’ve done it with smallpox.”

“With global travel the way it is, and the recent outbreaks of measles in states and polio in other states, I don’t think this is the right time to not vaccinate our kids,” Hornby added. “West Virginia leads the nation in our vaccination policies. […] I can’t vote for this amendment.”

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Del. Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley – both voted in favor of Pushkin’s amendment proposal, and against Kirby’s.

Del. Bob Fehrenbacher, R-Wood, himself a Catholic, also expressed opposition to the amendment.

“It’s my understanding that my religion does not preclude me, nor my children, nor my grandchildren from being vaccinated,” Fehrenbacher said. “The 10 diseases that are prescribed in West Virginia code that school children must take, nine of them, by my research, are infectious – they’re contagious. They can be passed on from child to child.”

“With this amendment, we are potentially opening the door to 250,000 children to avoid vaccination,” Fehrenbacher added. “As I contemplate that, and the consequences of some of these diseases, I am troubled.”

Kirby’s amendment passed by a vote of 58 to 37. HB 5105 has now been advanced to third reading, with further debate expected to occur on Monday. RealWV will provide updates as to the status of the bill as additional information is made available. 

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