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The GOP’s anti-vaccine mandate push is seeping into other vaccines — and schools

The writing has been on the wall for a while. Now Republicans in some states are moving forward with actual proposals.

Anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr. speaks at a 2019 rally against a proposed bill that would remove parents' ability to opt their school-age children out of receiving the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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Somehow, this keeps happening.

For months, we’ve written in this space about how the Republicans’ pushback against coronavirus vaccine mandates could foment — and apparently has been fomenting — opposition to mandates of other vaccines, including for schoolchildren. It’s inherent in their talking points: If vaccines should be a matter of “choice,” why not those more long-standing vaccines, too? High-profile Republicans haven’t generally addressed where they draw the line and why.

Early efforts to wade into allowing more choice on other vaccines had been quickly pulled back. In Tennessee, the state momentarily prevented its health department from communicating with children about any vaccines. In Florida, a prominent state senator suggested that his state might “review” those other vaccine requirements, before walking it back.

But GOP lawmakers in other states are increasingly moving in this direction.

In Georgia, a GOP state senator proposed a bill that would ban the state from requiring “proof of any vaccination of any person as a condition of providing any service or access to any facility.” The bill was endorsed by 17 state senators, about half of the Republican contingent in a chamber where you need less than 30 votes to pass something.

When it was pointed out that this could quite logically extend to vaccine requirements for the state’s public schools, state Sen. Jeff Mullis (R) said he planned to “adjust” the bill.

Efforts by Republicans in Wisconsin also have shown some real momentum. State Senate Health Committee Chairman Patrick Testin (R) held a hearing this month that included Senate Bill 336. The bill would, among other things, prohibit schools and universities from excluding students because of their vaccination status. And, again, it’s not just about coronavirus vaccines.

Experts aren’t sure quite what that would mean, practically speaking, given that the legislation wouldn’t repeal state laws requiring students to get vaccines like those for polio and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “School districts would then be responsible for enforcing the state’s vaccine requirements for students while being banned from denying admission or participation to students because of what vaccinations they have received.”

The author of the bill, state Sen. André Jacque (R), said it would not conflict with state law because parents can apply for waivers from such vaccine requirements. The question would seem to be: what happens if and when waivers are not granted and the students remain unvaccinated.

The Wisconsin bill is similar to a bill passed by Republicans in Montana last year, but that bill specifically exempted school vaccine requirements, eliminating the tension that would be created by the Wisconsin bill. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has said he would veto it, but he is up for reelection this year, and the state could soon have a GOP governor. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R), who is running against Evers, gave a noncommittal response when asked whether she would sign the bill, and Testin is running for her job — both signs that perhaps they know where the GOP base is headed on this issue.

Republicans in neighboring Iowa also are pushing forward on related ideas.

A bill that advanced through a state Senate committee this month would ban localities and school districts from adding to the list of required vaccines. The bill would also repeal language in state law stating that exemptions to vaccine requirements don’t apply during outbreaks — an idea that Iowa Public Radio says “would be unique to Iowa.”

The move comes after the leader of the state Senate said last month that while reviewing other vaccines wasn’t on his list of priorities, he would take a look at various proposals.

“I would say that the COVID vaccine … shined a light on all the vaccine policy,” state Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver (R) told the Des Moines Register. “We’ll certainly take a look at that as people file different bills.”

Whether any of these bills become law remains to be seen. Given the examples in Tennessee and Florida, it’s apparent there is some reluctance to move in that direction — even when suggestions have pointed in that direction. But we’ve also seen many in the GOP warming to this kind of thinking, with polls showing support among Republicans for childhood vaccine requirements dropping from around two-thirds at the start of the pandemic to less than a majority.

Decline in GOP support for childhood vaccine mandates -- "Do you think parents should be required to have their children vaccinated against infectious diseases?" (Republicans vs. Democrats)

That’s a lot of people who are receptive to these kinds of ideas. And the history of the pandemic demonstrates those people must be catered to. To what extent, we’ll still have to see.