Summit County health officials leery of immunization legislation
The three new bills would change current procedure for requesting an exemption
March 3, 2017
Summit County's health officials are cautiously watching three new bills under consideration in the Utah Legislature that amend immunization and vaccination requirements.
The bills– HB 308, HB 309 and HB 310– would implement new requirements for the state health department and local agencies. It would mandate the creation of an online education program about preventable diseases to allow the vaccination exemption form to be completed online and create the Utah Statewide Immunization Information System, among others. The bills would also amend the grounds for exemptions from required vaccines.
Rich Bullough, director of the Summit County Health Department, said he does not support the bills because the current process is "getting us what we need," including face-to-face interaction with parents seeking exemptions.
"We are all for customer service and we are not trying to make this hard on people, but if they chose to exempt their children we have the information they need with respect to wellness and the risk," Bullough said. "We just want to ensure the opportunity to have the conversation with them somewhere or somehow about the risks."
Earlier this week, HB 308 and 310 were unanimously passed out of the state House of Representatives, while HB 309 passed with a vote of 60-9. All three bills will likely be introduced in the Senate this week.
Rep. Norman Thurston, a Republican from Provo who is sponsoring the bills, said he believes the measures will actually reduce the number of people who seek exemptions from required vaccinations, while providing more educational information for those who do.
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Thurston referred to the online component as a "pretty big win for public health and personal freedom." He said it removes the unnecessary requirement to drive to the health department to complete the exemption form.
"We also updated the statement about who can be exempt. Now, there are two classes of exemptions: medical and personal, which includes religious," Thurston said. "Before, religious and personal were separated and people objected because when you claimed a religious exemption you had to let them know what church you belong to.
"It just basically clarifies it. It does not change or broaden the number or type of exemptions people can claim," he said.
Thurston, who is the director for the state Office of Health Care Statistics, said his job puts him in an unusual position because he feels very strongly about protecting parental rights and community health.
"I don think there is one person who thinks that they got everything they want and not one person who is totally comfortable with this," Thurston said. "But that's kind of how you know you got a compromise and that's part of the deal with this whole thing. How can we make this less of a burden on parents without jeopardizing community health?"
Summit County's immunization response is currently hovering at around 90 percent, according to Carolyn Rose, nursing director for the Health Department. Rose said 90 percent is the standard cutoff for most diseases. She added, "if 90 percent of the people are immunized the chances are less that the 10 percent will become infected with that disease."
"The Park City School District has hovered around 90 percent for the past few years because there was a gradual decline in kids who were immunized in the past 10 years. That could lead to outbreaks of diseases," Rose said. "On the East Side of the county, both North and South Summit had really low rates of kids with exemptions. But over the past five to eight years they have gradually increased (their exemption rate) and they are at about 92 percent."
Rose said nursing directors across the state, herself included, are leery about the measures because they are concerned with losing the face-to-face contact with parents who are seeking exemptions. However, she said she does support the overall purpose of the bills.
"I think all three bills are a good thing even if it takes away from the people coming into the health department to get their exemptions because parents will be required to take the education piece, which I think that is a good thing," Rose said. "My gut feeling is it will increase the number of people seeking exemptions, but the exact opposite may happen. We needed to compromise and come up with a solution and I guess we will see what happens."
To track the three bills go to the Utah State Legislature website at http://le.utah.gov/.