Kyle Mullica, a freshman member of Colorado’s House, came into office this past January with a sense of mission.
An emergency-room nurse, he had run a campaign based on his experience in the world of medicine, in an era where anxiety about health care is high. Even with his experience, he was surprised when during an introductory meeting with an official from the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, he was told that Colorado was at the bottom nationwide for the percentage of children in kindergarten who were vaccinated against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. He had seen people coming into the ER with “vaccine-preventable” diseases like whooping cough, he said, but he was still shocked.
“That was extremely concerning to me,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I wanted to make sure we were doing something about that.”
Mullica, a Democrat who represents a district in the Denver area, said he started looking at options to improve this. This week, a bill he sponsored to tighten vaccination protocols for parents raised hopes among public health groups. It died in the state Senate on Thursday afternoon.
But being the face of a political effort to tackle this pressing public health issue has made Mullica the target of threats. After the bill passed the state’s House on Saturday, Mullica received an email that likened him to a Nazi doctor and said that he deserved to die.
“The world would be better if your home burned down with you and your family in it,” it read in part, according to a copy published by CBS.
Mullica declined to comment further on the threat, saying that it had unsettled his family.
“I don’t want to be bullied and intimidated from doing what I believe in. What I believe is going to protect our community but there’s nothing I would ever do to put my family in harm’s way either,” he told CBS. “I’ve had plenty of civil discussions with people who disagree with me on the issue, and we should. That’s how we make good policy. But leave my family out of it.”
The Colorado State Patrol said it was investigating the threat and declined to comment further.
The Colorado bill comes amid growing concern about how widely anti-vaccination efforts are spreading around the country. More than 700 people have been sickened by measles this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the largest number in 25 years. More than 500 of those infected were not vaccinated.
Vaccinations has become a hot topic of debate for state legislators around the country. In Washington, the state’s Senate passed a bill in April to eliminate personal and philosophical exemptions to vaccines after the state’s worst measles outbreak in two decades.
In Colorado, public health officials have pointed to the ease of getting exemptions in the state. Forty-seven states allow religious exemptions from vaccinations, and 17 allow exemptions for personal belief, Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Colorado chapter, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Colorado allows both.
Mullica’s bill would have required that parents seeking personal or religious exemptions to apply at a state office in person — a modest change meant to bring the level of effort required to get an exemption closer to the one needed to get vaccinated.
“This is just trying to address the convenience exemption that we see in Colorado,” said O’Leary, who advised proponents of the bill. “It’s still more effort to get your kid vaccinated than to not.”
O’Leary said that studies have shown that the easier it is to get an exemption, the lower the vaccination rate. And the lower the vaccination rate, the more likely a state is to have outbreaks of preventable diseases.
“That’s been shown over and over again,” he said. “It was very clear we needed to do something.”
Colorado has yet to experience a significant outbreak of measles, O’Leary said, but has had numerous cases of whooping cough and mumps, he said.
California ended all nonmedical immunization exemptions in 2016 and Vermont did away with personal exemptions in 2015, but O’Leary said supporters of the Colorado bill decided to go with a more modest effort in the hopes that it would pass.
Still, the bill generated a heated discussion in the state, as hundreds of anti-vaxxer parents filled the hallways of the Capitol as it was being deliberated. The bill will have to wait until 2020 if supporters want to put it forward again.
Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.