State Epidemiologist Shannon McBee addresses members of the Joint Committee on Children and Families during a meeting Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, about West Virginia’s school vaccine law. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
A legislative meeting got heated Tuesday afternoon as Republican members of the Joint Committee on Children and Families questioned a state health official about the state’s process to determine whether school students are granted medical exemptions to vaccine mandates.
West Virginia is one of five states that allows only medical exemptions — not religious or philosophical — for mandated school vaccines.
State Epidemiologist Shannon McBee said the state immunization has received 198 requests for medical vaccine requirement exemptions over the past five years. The requests are sent by a child’s physician.
Children are granted exemptions when they have a medical condition that prevents them from getting the vaccine, she said.
About 75 percent of requests were approved.
Sen. Mike Azinger asked McBee why the state would deny a request for exemption from a physician.
McBee said that many of the denied requests were from doctors requesting an exemption based on religious reasons, not medical reasons.
“Nothing against you, but this is arrogance,” said Azinger, R-Wood. “And we live in America, and if a parent says they don’t want their kids to have a vaccine, they have the constitutional right to do that. Here we sit one of the clumps of states that said that you can’t have a religious exemption. Lord have mercy, our country founded on religion, right? The First Amendment. …how in God’s name do you think, doc and these folks at [the Department of Health and Human Resources]? They have the right to tell the parents that they have to vaccinate their children. This is just not acceptable.”
Health experts point to the state’s strict vaccine laws when touting West Virginia’s high vaccination rate in school-age children, and for the lack of outbreaks in vaccine-preventable illnesses. The state has not had a confirmed measles case, for instance, since 2009. Nationally, the school vaccination rate has declined among school children since COVID, but West Virginia’s rates have been higher.
McBee also explained that the state has not offered “reciprocity” to residents from other states who have gotten exemptions for vaccination mandates and then moved to West Virginia.
“So we are telling people from other states don’t come into West Virginia?” said Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh.
“What I’m saying is that if you live in another state and you want to attend a West Virginia public school, you have to meet our immunization requirements,” McBee said.
The committee on Tuesday also heard about trends in state law concerning vaccination from Shannon Kolman, senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislators and from Dr. Joseph Evans, a professor of pediatrics and vice dean of the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.
After hearing Kolman’s presentation, Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, asked her how much of the agency’s budget is paid for by pharmaceutical companies. Kolman said she did not know, but would get the lawmaker an answer.
Committee chair Mark Hunt, R-Kanawha, told Evans, “We’re asking you to speak about the science of vaccines, about the process of vaccines.
“Today, we’re not seeing the testimony regarding whether you’re pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine. …we want to learn about — none of us are scientists. We want to learn about the science of vaccines: how they’re put together and how it works.”
Evans told the committee that in his 37-year career he’d not seen a case of measles and had seen only one case of mumps.
“The problem is [vaccines] work so well we’re not scared of these [illnesses] anymore,” Evans said.
“The World Health Organization has identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health,” he told the committee. “Thanks to our vaccine laws … We’re a model for other states trying to decrease vaccine preventable illnesses.”
Rucker pointed out that though the state has some of the strongest vaccine mandate laws, the state’s health overall often ranks low among other states. She also said the risk of injury is one reason people are concerned about vaccines.
“In that analysis, shouldn’t the individual’s right [be] to determine what risk they’re willing to take?” Rucker said.
According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines are constantly monitored for safety. Vaccines help prevent serious, sometimes life-threatening diseases like measles.The most common reactions to the shots are mild and include pain, swelling or redness where the shot was given, mild fever, chills, feeling tired, headache, muscle and joint aches.
Of 1 million vaccine doses, one or two people may have a severe allergic reaction that can include difficulty breathing, swelling in the face and throat, a fast heartbeat, a rash all over the body, and dizziness and weakness.
Evans pointed out that the theory that vaccines are linked with autism have been long debunked.
“Visit the autism foundation, they’ll tell you ‘please quit talking about this. Go spend money on real research,’” Evans said.
Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, asked Evans if he explained to parents the risks associated with vaccines when administering them, to which Evans answered yes.
“Based on our laws, every child that’s in school both private and public, it’s compulsory that they have these vaccines,” Kirby said. “What good is it giving that information to them that they have to go forward with?”
Hunt concluded the meeting by saying it would not be the last conversation about the state’s vaccine requirements.
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