Gov. Polis Says He’ll Back New Regulations For Vaccination Opt-Outs

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Gov. Jared Polis’ prepares to make his second State of the State address. Jan. 9, 2019.

A bill that aims to boost immunization rates and make it more difficult for parents in Colorado to opt their children out of vaccinations is expected to soon be introduced at the state capitol. The proposal is sure to heat up the discussion on immunizations, protecting public health and parents’ rights. 

The bill would require parents who want to opt-out to get a signed document from a medical professional or watch an online video, produced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Right now parents simply submit a form to a child’s school. 

The proposal would not eliminate non-medical or personal belief exemptions. 

Gov. Jared Polis’ office said as it stands, he backs the measure. 

“The governor is encouraged by the conversations he has had with the bill sponsors and appreciates their hard work,” said the statement from his office. “The most recent draft of the bill honors the rights of parents while supporting the administration’s efforts to boost immunization rates and that is a bill that the governor can support. He will continue to monitor as it moves through the legislature.”

Most parents in Colorado do vaccinate their children. However, less than 89 percent of kindergarten-aged children are vaccinated for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s far below the national average of about 94 percent and also below the level considered ideal for reaching “herd immunity.” Otherwise known as the percentage of people who need to be vaccinated in order to avoid a major outbreak.

The bill sets a vaccination rate goal of 95 percent.

Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner thinks the plan will be a hard one for conservatives to come around on.

“Someone like myself, in the vaccine arena, wants to encourage as much vaccination, as much immunization, as much participation as possible. Because I believe in it,” Gardner said. “By the same token, I respect that parents have every right to make choices about their child's self-care. Because I respect that, my tendency is to vote always in favor of parental rights.”

Supporters say parents who opt out of vaccines should be required to put in the same amount of effort as parents who immunize.

“We really want to provide those facts here and we want to provide that education, that information to allow people to make those choices,” said Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica, an emergency room nurse and sponsor of the legislation. “Because right now where we're at in Colorado, it's a dangerous place to be.“ 

In the previous session, a different bill failed to pass the legislature. It would have required parents to submit a form in-person to the state or local health department the first time they seek a non-medical vaccine exemption. 

Gov. Polis didn’t back that bill because he felt it was overly burdensome for parents. 

“Of course we don’t support things like requiring anyone to go in person and things like that,” Polis said of making it more difficult for people to opt-out of vaccines.

Polis has long said he wanted to strike the right balance to improve Colorado’s measles, mumps, rubella immunization rates specifically, but not make it too difficult for parents to opt-out. “As more and more areas have had outbreaks of measles, we want to do our best to decrease the probability or the severity of that kind of outbreak here in Colorado,” said Polis over the summer.

In June, Polis signed an executive order to outline policies he hoped would increase the state’s kindergarten vaccination rate while at the same time, as he described it, “honor the rights of parents.”

A spokesman for Polis said he had included $2.5 million in this year’s budget request for funding to work with various communities on immunizations, determine root causes and provide educational information about vaccines. 

The Colorado Health Choice Alliance, a group that opposes government vaccination requirements, lobbied strongly against last session’s measure and brought large crowds to public hearings to testify in opposition. This year, several bills will make their way through the state’s legislature with the aim of solidifying a parents’ choice to opt-out a child from vaccines. 

“It’s always the Democrats here and nationwide who are pushing for Draconian measures, which as a lifelong Democrat myself, we’re the ones that are supposed to stand up for freedom and human rights and stand up against big industry,” Phil Silberman, one of the Health Choice Alliance’s founders, told CPR last year during the heated debate.

CPR's John Daley contributed to this report.