Lawmakers weigh pros, cons of youth vax bills

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/4/2022 6:36:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A bill that would eliminate all non-medical childhood vaccine exemptions for schoolchildren is before the Legislature, and an effort is underway to get Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to support it.

“We really want to keep our children as safe as possible,” said Jonathan Davis, vice chairman of pediatrics and chief of newborn medicine at Tufts Children’s Hospital.

Davis is one of a number of medical authorities supporting H.2411, “An Act relative to vaccines and preventing future disease outbreaks.” The bill would eliminate non-medical exemptions for childhood vaccinations required to attend school in Massachusetts, including the religious exemption. Davis said that it is modeled on legislation that has been passed in states such as New York, Connecticut and Maine and that constitutional issues have not come up because of it. He did say, however, that the bill has increased the childhood vaccination rate.

The bill is supported by a wide range of medical organizations, including the March of Dimes and the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Erin Jones, director of legislative and strategic counsel for the March of Dimes, said that even as people increasingly describe themselves as less religious, the number of religious exemptions for childhood vaccines has gone up. She also said that it is the belief of the March of Dimes that this is due to opposition to vaccination and not because of people’s religious beliefs.

“We’ve been watching these trends in the data over years,” she said.

She also said legal precedent favors public health trumping a religious belief.

“There are such things as exemptions and those are medical exemptions,” she said. “We totally support those.”

Jones said that the bill “would obviously close the loophole” and that the organization’s support for it is “a public health stance.”

The bill is currently before the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, of which Comerford is the Senate chair. This week, the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics launched a campaign asking Comerford to support the bill and back reporting it favorably out of the committee.

Locally Rep. Patricia Duffy, D-Holyoke, is a sponsor of the bill.

The campaign also asks that Comerford not support S.1517, a bill that would provide better documentation for exemptions to childhood vaccines required to attend school but would not eliminate the religious exemption.

“None of the medical organizations of the state are supporting (this bill),” Davis said.

The Senate bill also would standardize the framework for religious and medical exemptions.

Senators Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, John Velis, D-Westfield, and Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, are sponsors of this bill.

In speaking about the bill, Hinds said that the pandemic has shown the importance of vaccinations and covering gaps in coverage.

“We need to rethink our approach,” he said.

Hinds also said the data that would be generated if the law passes would be useful to parents and for resource allocation on a state level.

Action on both bills has been extended, as has action on a bill identical to S.1517 in the House. And Comerford said that she has received an “unprecedented” amount of input on the bills.

“I believe we must do vaccine reform in the commonwealth,” Comerford said. “These are strong proposals.”

She also said that there are merits to both bills, and that she and the House chair of the committee understand the importance of the issue.

“I look forward to finding a path forward,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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