Momentum grows for closing gaps in US vaccine requirements

FILE - This April 15, 2021, file photo syringes filled with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are shown at the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation center in Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami. With vaccination rates lagging in red states, Republican leaders have begun stepping up efforts to persuade their supporters to get the shot, at times combating misinformation spread by some of their own.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
FILE - This April 15, 2021, file photo syringes filled with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are shown at the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation center in Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami. With vaccination rates lagging in red states, Republican leaders have begun stepping up efforts to persuade their supporters to get the shot, at times combating misinformation spread by some of their own. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

HARTFORD, Conn. – A law adopted this week in Connecticut adds momentum to the push to strengthen vaccination requirements for schoolchildren, but efforts to give families more leeway are brewing in statehouses around the country in debates that go back more than a century.

The arguments over mandates, and when to allow exceptions, are expected to become more heated as authorities decide what expectations should be for COVID-19 vaccinations once they are approved for young children.

Religious exemptions like the one eliminated by Connecticut’s new law are facing particular scrutiny amid fears of new measles outbreaks and concerns the growing number of families claiming religious exemptions for their children are opposed because of scientifically discredited claims about the dangers of vaccines. Leaders of Islam, Judaism and major Christian religions say vaccination is consistent with their belief systems.

“The truth is there is no major religion that prohibits vaccinations,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “The argument has really very little to do with religion and everything to do with the anti-vaccine, vaccine choice movement.”

Proposals to expand or limit immunization exemptions pop up every year in state legislatures, although it’s rare for any to win passage. Nationwide, the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL, is currently tracking about 270 bills related to childhood immunizations.

They include a bill in West Virginia, one of the six states that ended religious exemptions, to allow students with “conscientious or personal” objections to opt out. A bill in Minnesota would add religious reasons to existing exemptions, and Vermont lawmakers have proposed a bill to end the state’s religious exemption.

The debates often do not break down along traditional political divides, according to Robert Bednarczyk, a professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

“I do think when you see vaccine refusal, it really does run across the population,” he said. “Regardless of the reason, the endpoint is always the same. It’s children that are being left unprotected from infectious diseases.”