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Iowa Senate proposal strengthens exemptions to school vaccine requirements

Under a Senate proposal, Iowa schools and health agencies would recognize vaccine exemptions during public health emergencies.
John Pemble
IPR file
Under a Senate proposal, Iowa schools and health agencies would recognize vaccine exemptions during public health emergencies.

A bill advancing in the Iowa Senate would preempt local cities and school districts from adding to a list of required vaccines for children in school and child care.

In a move that would be unique to Iowa, another section of the bill would recognize student vaccine exemptions during outbreaks and other public health emergencies.

Children enrolled to attend school or child care must be vaccinated against a list of illnesses that can be highly infectious and harmful including whooping cough, polio and measles.

The Senate proposal (SF 2079) would stop local governments from acting on their own to add any another vaccine to the list, such as the coronavirus vaccine. The bill indicates that only the Iowa State Board of Health, and its 11 members appointed by the governor, would be allowed to mandate a new vaccine.

The measure advanced quickly through both a subcommittee and the Education Committee on Wednesday and is now available for debate by the full Senate.

“I don’t think it changes a lot,” Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, said in the subcommittee meeting. “It just strengthens the language that drives it back toward public health and puts in the code that religious and medical exemptions will be recognized no matter what happens.”

Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said in the subcommittee that schools are not interested in issuing their own vaccine requirements.

“Quite honestly our boards don’t want to be the ones that are in the position of deciding what vaccines, beyond the ones that are already required, should be required of their staff and their students to attend school,” Piper said.

The second section of the bill received little attention in committee but would put greater authority behind school vaccine exemptions by striking two words from existing law.

Currently, families may opt out of school vaccination requirements for medical or religious reasons, but Iowa law states that those exemptions “do not apply in times of emergency or epidemic.” The Senate proposal would change that line to say that exemptions will continue to apply in a public health crisis.

Drake University law professor Denise Hill said, as proposed, the bill breaks from longstanding public health policy.

“As long as you have an exemption your child is pretty much entitled to go to school if they’re not vaccinated,” Hill said. “During times of emergency or outbreak that can be disastrous for both the child who’s not vaccinated as well as other children in the school or school district.”

According to Hill, two-thirds of U.S. states have laws stating that children should not attend school when there is an outbreak of an illness which they have not been vaccinated against.

The other one-third of states have laws similar to Iowa, revoking medical and religious exemptions during an outbreak.

Under the Senate proposal, Hill said, Iowa would be the first state that she is aware of where vaccine exemptions would remain in effect in the case of a pandemic.

“These are very real issues that we definitely need to make sure we’re not going backwards in the protections that we all share, whether we’re vaccinated or not,” Hill said.

The bill could be a setback, Hill said, in controlling a disease like measles which was once near eradication but has since made a resurgence. The Centers for Disease Control has warned that vaccine skepticism is contributing to measles’ comeback. In 2019, measles cases surged nationally to 1,282, including two cases in Iowa.

Republican lawmakers in the Iowa House introduced their own bill this week (HF 2040) specifically aimed at heading off COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools. It would prevent any school from requiring students to be immunized against the coronavirus and would apply to both child care centers and K-12 schools as well as community colleges and universities.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa