Inside, there were cheers. Outside, there were protests.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1638 into law to applause Friday at Vancouver City Hall, eliminating personal and philosophical exemptions to requirements that children in public and private schools as well as licensed day-care centers receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
Outside City Hall, protestors carried posters opposing the bill and pleading for choice on vaccinations.
Inslee said the new law was aimed at ending measles outbreaks in Washington and sending a statement in the debate around the necessity of vaccination versus parental control over their children’s medical care.
“We are here to say something very simply,” Inslee said before signing the bill. “In Washington state, we believe in our doctors, we believe in our nurses, we believe in our educators, we believe in science and we love our children. That is why in Washington state, we are against measles.”
The bill sprung from Clark County’s measles outbreak, which began in January, ended in late April and racked up 71 measles cases, while also spreading to King County and Multnomah County, Ore.
HB 1638 has received some push-back in Clark County, where 78 percent of 6- to 18-year-olds have received the recommended two doses of MMR vaccine, according to the most current state data available.
Christie Nadzieja, Bob Runnells and Katie Bauer turned their backs to Inslee while he signed the bill in Vancouver City Hall’s Council Chambers.
Nadzieja, who threw her hood up when she turned her back, said she will continue to fight for parent choice on vaccines. Runnells carried a manila envelope filled with what he said was 5,000 signatures opposed to HB 1638. He said the county’s outbreak “doesn’t justify this overreach into our personal health care choice.”
“I am for freedom of choice in health care,” Runnells said.
Inslee, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election, said science and safety for children is more important than personal choice.
“We should be listening to health and science, not social media,” Inslee said. “So that’s why we need a national public health campaign about this issue to make sure people across America get access to real science, based on real data rather than fear. It is science and truth that will keep us healthy rather than fear.”
Clark County’s outbreak is one of the biggest in the U.S. this year, which has seen more than 760 cases, the greatest number since measles was declared eliminated from the country in 2000.
The outbreak cost Clark County nearly $870,000 to fight, excluded almost 850 students from school and sparked the creation of the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Paul Harris, a Vancouver Republican, and Rep. Monica Stonier, a Vancouver Democrat.
“Bills like this don’t become a law by accident. If you see how Olympia works, this was not an accident, nor should it be an accident,” Harris said at the signing.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Vancouver Democrat, provided a huge boost in pushing HB 1638 through the Senate, where the bill was met with more resistance than in the House.
“In our society, we treasure our individual freedom and personal choice, as we should,” Cleveland said. “But we also must, as a society, draw a line when those personal freedoms really jeopardize the safety of others. Contagious disease shouldn’t really be a topic for debate. It’s a threat to public health. When it comes to public safety, I feel that our decisions as public officials should be guided by fact and by science; because, frankly, we have to remember that opinion isn’t a substitute for expertise, passion is no substitute for knowledge and fear is no substitute for truth.”
Harris called HB 1638 “the first bite of the apple.” He wants to see what the bill does to change vaccination rates statewide before exploring any similar legislation for other school-required vaccines. He thinks the bill could change behaviors and cultural norms.
Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said he’s for expanding the scope of eliminating personal exemptions to other vaccines, and Cleveland introduced a bill during the recently ended legislative session that would have done that for all school-required vaccines.
“At the end of the day, we passed the bill that addresses the outbreak that was before us in Clark County, and I’m very pleased about that,” Cleveland said. “In terms of the future, I’m not sure yet. We know vaccines prevent disease, and so it may be an issue we need to continue to come back to next legislative session.”