Sutton's Candice Edwards, whose son had a life-threatening reaction to vaccines as a baby, plans to be among protesters who are expected to be outside of the State House on Sunday to protest the new flu vaccine mandate for children and young adults.
The Aug. 19 mandate, the first in the country, requires all children 6 months old or older attending child care, preschool, kindergarten, K-12 and higher education institutions to receive a flu vaccine by Dec. 31, unless a medical or religious exemption is provided. K-12 students who are home-schooled and college students who are engaged in remote learning off campus are not required to follow the mandate. But elementary and secondary school students in districts and schools that are using a remote education model are not exempt. Students are required to have the immunization to return to school in January. Enforcement will be by local authorities.
State Department of Public Health officials said the requirement will help reduce flu-related illnesses and the overall impact of respiratory illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edwards, who set up the protest along with a Worcester woman who started the group No Mandatory Flu Shot MA, said the state is unnecessarily and unfairly coercing parents into vaccinating their children against the flu. The vaccine, she pointed out, has a low efficacy. COVID-19 safeguards that people are practicing – mask wearing, frequent hand washing, distancing and disinfecting – should lower the number of flu cases, she added.
Edwards pointed out that on a voluntary basis, Massachusetts had the highest flu vaccination rate for children ages 6 months to 17 in the country, 81.8% during the 2018-2019 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She wonders if the state will also require children to be vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available.
“I would never ever tell someone to not vaccinate their child. That's a decision that individual parents should make,” Edwards, executive director of Health Choice 4 Action MA, said in a phone interview last week. “What is happening is parents are feeling bullied. During a time when they already have to deal with so much uncertainty with COVID, this is thrown into the mix as well. This is an emotional roller coaster. This could have and should have been handled better. Education should never have been hostaged.”
Edwards said her 5-year-old son, Oliver, has lifelong developmental issues from the reaction he suffered after some immunizations when he was 6 months old.
His temperature climbed to 105 degrees. There was inflammation of the brain. His coordination was off, and he was only able to use half of his body, the mother said.
Tests by the pediatrician determined that the baby had several medical conditions and his body had not acquired any antibodies from the vaccines.
“The doctor said his body could not process the vaccines and that he was not a good candidate for further vaccinations,” Edwards said, noting that the experience caused her son, who had been ahead of all the childhood development markers, to regress.
Oliver has not had an immunization since. But when it came time for him to go to school, Edwards said the doctor would not write a medical exemption, freeing her son from the immunization requirements. She said the physician said her son did not meet the CDC's list of conditions for a medical exemption. The doctor suggested that she use a religious exemption, which she did.
The new vaccine requirement has the support of several medical organizations, including the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Worcester District Medical Society. Six states require children in day care and preschool to be vaccinated against the flu. But Massachusetts is the first state to require students in K-12 and higher education to get the flu vaccine, according toMinnesota-based Immunization Action Coalition. Several higher education institutions across the country began the mandate this year.
Dr. Michael P. Hirsh, medical director for Worcester and the Central Massachusetts Regional Health Alliance, and Dr. Matilde “Mattie” Castiel, the city's commission of health and human services, say the mandate is needed to reduce the chances of people getting both the flu and COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus that has sickened and killed thousands nationwide could surge again this fall during the flu season. Between Oct. 1, 2019, through April 4, 56 million flu illnesses occurred nationwide, resulting in 26 million medical visits, 740,000 hospitalizations and 62,000 flu deaths, according to preliminary data from the CDC.
In Massachusetts, there were 40,698 positive cases of influenza reported to DPH that resulted in 55,000 hospital emergency department visits and one pediatric death during this past flu season.
Hirsh, who chairs the WDMS' public health committee and helped lead the city through its COVID-19 crisis, said the reason for the sense of urgency for the mandate is to prevent a “twindemic,” another surge of the coronavirus concurrent with the peak of the flu season. Both have similar symptoms, which would make it difficult to quickly distinguish which a person has. Therefore, anyone with symptoms would have to be treated as if they have COVID-19, he said. That would require isolation in medical facilities and the use of valuable personal protection equipment. Pediatric resources are not as deep and rich as those for adults, he pointed out.
“We're trying to keep our children from getting ill and our medical personnel from getting overwhelmed when pediatric floors are filled and ICUs are filled with kids on ventilators. The last thing we need is an influx of kids with influenza,” said Hirsh, noting that people are not as trusting of scientific health-related mandates and recommendations because of seeds of mistrust sown by the Trump administration.
“We have got to have the attitude that we're all in this together. Let's do the right thing for the community and have some faith in the medical and public health experts are trying to do what's best for the greatest number of us.”
There are mixed opinions by legislators. State Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, said she strongly supports the new mandate, saying vaccines have made the world a healthier place. She pointed to the millions killed worldwide before there was a vaccine during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the hundreds of thousands that have died during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“While some can and will choose to exempt themselves and their children from getting (vaccinated) for religious or medical reasons … vaccines and disease prevention only work if all do their small part,” Chandler said.
State Sen. Anne M. Gobi, said while she may support vaccines, she does not like the way the new flu vaccine requirement came about.
“I am not in favor of this mandate, which was done without consultation with the Legislature, education officials or from what I can gather, local physicians,” the Spencer Democrat said in an email.
Several lawmakers, including Gobi, have written letters to Mary Lou Sudders, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel expressing concerns. In an Aug. 25 letter, more than a dozen Republican House members – including Hannah Kane of Shrewsbury, Kimberly Ferguson of Holden, Paul K. Frost of Auburn and House Minority Leader Bradley Jones Jr. of North Reading – questioned the timeline for the mandate. They pointed out that at first it was to apply only to the upcoming school year but was later changed to a permanently required immunization for students.
The legislators also said it makes no sense to require students in districts where there will be remote learning to be vaccinated. They also questioned why a vaccine that has an efficacy that ranges in any given year between 40% and 60%, significantly less than that of other required immunizations, is being mandated.
State Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton, in an email, said he has additional questions. Among them is why only children are mandated and not school personnel.
Sutton mother among protesters defying state flu vaccine mandatehttps://t.co/v42Lyajhd0 @EThompsonTG @RickCinclair @MassDPH @HC4A_MA @CDCgov @ImmunizeOrg @MichaelHirsh4@TweetWorcester @UMassMedical @Sen_Chandler
— telegramdotcom (@telegramdotcom) August 29, 2020
“Throughout the last few months, we've seen the government use its power to discriminate between which businesses can open, what's an acceptable use of the First Amendment, and now mandate the flu vaccine. This decision, done under the shroud of government bureaucracy, leaves us with a bevy of questions,” Fattman said.
Edwards, the Sutton mother, formed Health Choice 4 Action MA last year to fight proposed legislation regarding required vaccines for children. Before entering school, children are required to have several immunizations unless they have a medical exemption from a doctor stating the child's health would be endangered by a vaccine, or a religious exemption based on conflicts with religious beliefs.
In the 2019-2020 school year, out of the 66,756 children in kindergarten in Massachusetts, 890, or 1.33%, had exemptions. The vast majority, 737, were for religious reasons because of the very narrow CDC guidelines for medical exemptions.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all states grant immunization exemptions to children for medical reasons, and 45 states and Washington, D.C. grant religious exemptions. Fifteen states allow exemptions because of personal, moral or other beliefs. In 2019, Maine and New York removed the religious exemption. Maine also removed the philosophical exemption.
House bill 3999, filed by Rep. Andres Vargas, D-Haverhill, would eliminate religious exemptions from immunizations. Another bill, filed by Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford (H.4096) and Sen. Rebecca Rausch, D-Needham (S.2763), would standardize immunization requirements, the exemption process and give DPH authority to make the final decision on medical exemptions.
A spokesperson for Rausch said the CDC list of contraindications is extremely limited, and the bill would expand the options available to parents. Medical providers would look at the totality of a child's medical history and conditions to determine if an immunization is medically appropriate or not. The DPH would still have the authority to accept or deny an immunization exemption.
Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, who spoke against the passage of the bills during a hearing at the State House in December, last week said he thinks vaccines are very important, but he doesn't like that DPH – and not the doctor who is familiar with the child's history – would be giving the final approval for a medical exemption.
The semiretired professor of pediatrics and neurology at UMass Medical School in Worcester said the proposed measures are “medically unnecessary, and discriminatory against parental rights and the needs of vulnerable children.”
“The problem is there is enormous pressure to vaccinate everyone for obvious reasons. But I think in a way it is being overdone in order to get that result. Our state has a high rate of immunizations overall, but lower rates in areas that are medically underserved.”
Zimmerman said for 42 years he has treated and studied children who have had reactions and loss of developmental milestones after taking a vaccine. He said it's not only the vaccination but also an infection, most commonly an ear infection, along with underlying mitochondrial dysfunction – a condition of abnormal energy metabolism in cells – that is present but not apparent in a small number of very young children.
Some doctors shy away from writing medical exemptions, he said, because there is understandably an impetus within the medical community not to go against the idea that everybody should be vaccinated.
“I think that medical exemptions should be determined by the individual physician. If the state licenses physicians, it should let them make that decision,” he said.
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