Anti-Vaccine Activists Swarm Capitol as Lawmakers Pass Bill Limiting Medical Exemptions

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Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are displayed on a counter at a Walgreens Pharmacy in Mill Valley, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a pair of bills Monday to crack down on doctors who write fraudulent medical exemptions for school children's vaccinations.

Moving quickly in an effort to quell ongoing anti-vaccine protests at the Capitol, the Democratic governor enacted the legislation less than an hour after lawmakers sent him a set of changes he had required.

"This legislation provides new tools to better protect public health, and does so in a way that ensures parents, doctors, public health officials and school administrators all know the rules of the road moving forward," Newsom said in a statement.

Hundreds of anti-vaccine activists delayed Senate debate for more than an hour, shouting and pounding on walls and doors, unfurling an upside-down American flag from the chamber's public gallery and chanting "My kids, my choice" and "We will not comply."

They later returned to the Assembly, where they continued shouting "Kill the bill" and "Protect our children" as lawmakers considered other legislation.

Earlier in the day, protesters were also detained by police while blocking entrances to the Capitol as lawmakers scrambled to act on bills before their scheduled adjournment on Friday.

Despite the fierce outside opposition, SB 714 passed the Assembly 43-14 with minimal debate and was transferred immediately to the Senate and subsequently approved by a vote of 27-11. In both houses, the bill passed on near party lines votes, receiving close to unanimous support from Democrats, with Republicans almost entirely opposed.

That bill, along with SB 276, which the Legislature approved last week, will create state oversight of medical exemptions for vaccines required by most schools and day care centers in California.

Under the new law, the state will begin collecting medical exemptions electronically by Jan. 1, 2021. But Department of Health officials will only review them when a school's immunization rate falls below 95% or when a doctor writes more than five medical exemptions per year (beginning in 2020).

The legislation will also allow officials to revoke any medical exemptions written by doctors who have faced disciplinary action.

"It is my hope that parents whose vulnerable children could die from vaccine-preventable diseases will be reassured that we are protecting those communities that have been left vulnerable because a few unscrupulous doctors are undermining community immunity by selling inappropriate medical exemptions,” said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician, who introduced both bills.

Last week, when lawmakers approved the initial bill, Newsom unexpectedly walked back his pledge to sign it, demanding a major overhaul of the legislation. In a compromise, Pan's follow-up bill will, among other things, allow grace periods for students with existing medical exemptions.

Similar to the phase-out period allowed when California eliminated personal belief vaccine exemptions in 2015, a kindergartener with a medical exemption could retain it through sixth grade, for instance, while a seventh grader could be exempted through high school.

The legislative effort was co-sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Medical Association and the advocacy group Vaccinate California, all of which hailed its final approval.

Since being introduced last year, hundreds of parents have protested the legislation, insisting it would disrupt confidential doctor-patient relationships and scare doctors from writing new exemptions.

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Republicans in both chambers objected that there were no public committee hearings before both houses hurriedly approved the measure.

"This goes past vaccines and is again a major government overreach," said Republican Assemblyman Devon Mathis of Visalia, adding that, "Our medically fragile children are what are at stake."

Republican Sen. John Moorlach of Costa Mesa grew emotional as he recalled a developmentally disabled cousin who died at a young age.

"That's what these people fear," Moorlach said of protesters. "We've got to hit the pause button."

The legislation comes as the U.S. faces its worst measles outbreak in over two decades, with more than 1,200 people diagnosed nationwide since the beginning of the year.

This post includes additional reporting from Don Thompson of the  Associated Press.

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