California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a hotly debated vaccine bill on Monday that is expected to significantly tighten vaccine exemptions for children going to school.
Senate Bill 276 requires public health officials to review exemptions at any school found to have an immunization rate of less than 95%. The new law also mandates a public health review of any doctor who grants more than five medical exemptions in a calendar year. The state is now authorized to revoke any exemptions it deems fraudulent or medically inaccurate.
Newsom also signed SB 714, which included revisions to the original bill that the governor requested last week. The changes allow for a delay in the state review of some medical exemptions as well as incorporate Newsom’s proposal that all existing medical exemptions are grandfathered in by Jan. 1, according to the Los Angeles Times.
It also requires that families obtain new medical exemptions upon their child entering kindergarten, starting seventh grade or changing schools.
“This legislation provides new tools to better protect public health, and does so in a way that ensures parents, doctors, public health officials and school administrators all know the rules of the road moving forward,” the governor said in a statement.
SB 276 was first amended after Newsom raised concerns in June about the government interfering with doctor-patient relations. The initial version of the legislation, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, would have required the state health department to review and then either approve or deny all medical exemptions to school immunization requirements.
Children in California must be vaccinated in order to attend public or private schools, though the state permits exemptions if a physician identifies a medical reason for a child to skip some or all vaccines.
California is one of just three states in the country, along with West Virginia and Mississippi, that don’t permit vaccine exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons. West Virginia also authorizes its public health department to vet medical exemptions.
The reasons for medical exemptions can vary from vaccine to vaccine, but may include factors like whether a child has been in a coma, is undergoing chemotherapy or has life-threatening allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although immunization rates for children entering kindergarten in California are high ― currently about 95% statewide, according to data from the California Department of Public Health ― the rate of medical exemptions has risen in recent years, and public health officials are on high alert.
The bill’s passage comes amid the worst measles outbreak in the country in decades, with over 1,240 cases of the highly contagious disease confirmed this year across 30 states, according to the CDC. California has confirmed at least 67 measles cases this year.
The anti-vaccine movement has grown in recent years, often fueled by misconceptions about the safety of immunizations. One popular conspiracy theory about a supposed link between the MMR vaccine and childhood autism stems from a debunked 1998 study and has been exhaustively proven false in numerous medical studies.
The bill generated considerable backlash in the state, with some opponents saying it could violate patient-physician confidentiality and others arguing the government shouldn’t be involved in making medical decisions.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Capitol in Sacramento on Monday in a last-ditch attempt to convince lawmakers to kill the bill.
Several demonstrators were arrested for blocking entry into the government building, including three women who were obstructing a garage entrance used by lawmakers.
Protesters unfurled an upside-down American flag from the state Senate’s public gallery and chanted “My kids, my choice” and “We will not comply,” according to The Associated Press.