Over on the KQED News Politics and Government Desk, John Myers hosts a terrific podcast on California politics. The most recent edition (published last Friday) took a hard look at the political debate in California over SB 277, a bill that would eliminate the state's vaccine personal belief exemption.
Myers, KQED News' Marisa Lagos and Anthony York of the Grizzly Bear talk about it starting at 11:20, and their discussion runs about 10 minutes:
We've written often (perhaps exhaustively) on State of Health about vaccines, but usually it's been from a medical perspective or a public health perspective. But the debate around SB 277 has illuminated the politics around trying to change policy when a very loud, very vocal minority swamps the Capitol.
Last week, SB 277 was before the Senate Education Committee. Literally hundreds of people lined up to state their opposition to the bill.
"It was one of the longest, largest lines of people, I have seen at the building coming to testify on a bill," Myers, who covered the Capitol since 2001, said. He wasn't kidding. For more than 90 minutes, a seemingly-unending stream of people said their name and that they opposed the bill.
The measles outbreak that originated in Disneyland put vaccines -- and the people who voluntarily refuse them -- in the spotlight. Over the past months efforts to increase vaccination have been applauded, the "narrative has felt very pro-vaccination," Myers said. "All of a sudden this week, this showing of people who felt very passionately the other way about it … has temporarily shifted the narrative and maybe did take some people aback about it."
"There's a personal freedom issue that I think is resounding," said Marisa Lagos. 'You're not really seeing the legislators debating the merits of vaccines. … The debate this week was over whether are you then taking away another kid's rights to a quality education."
But there's a third group -- the kids (and adults, too) who are immuno-compromised, who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons. They rely on the rest of us for protection. In order to get to herd immunity, a community needs high vaccination rates. For measles, that's well above 92 percent.
SB 277 co-authors Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) say they wrote this bill to increase vaccination rates in California. But right now, all the introduction of SB 277 seems to have done is give repeated platforms to the tiny minority of people who make use of the personal belief exemption. In the current school year, 2.54 percent of kindergarteners have a personal belief exemption on file.
The senators on the education committee had a lot of questions last Wednesday and were left so uncertain about the bill that the committee chair, Sen. Carol Liu (D-Glendale) urged Pan to pull the bill, get questions answered (and possibly issue amendments) and then bring it back this Wednesday for a vote.
"When you have a very controversial bill, you do legwork ahead of time to try to get committee members on board, to try to build a coalition," Lagos said, and added that it looked like Pan and other supporters were "caught a little flat-footed."
Myers noted that politics is the about "the art of compromise… of finding somewhere in the middle. You don't find middle ground in the vaccination debate."
(This may be true, but there are other options -- such as tightening up the requirements to obtain a personal belief exemption.)
Even some vaccine supporters are highly critical of the approach "blundering state legislators" have taken.
“I’ve heard some people say that they felt like even taking up this issue was a political miscalculation by Sen. Pan," said Lagos, "that you're actually giving a soapbox to people who are against vaccines and maybe it would have been better to leave alone."
The Senate Education Committee will vote on SB 277 Wednesday morning. If the bill passes, it has several more hurdles to go before it might get to the governor's desk.