Less than three months after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared the state’s measles outbreak a public health emergency, lawmakers there are on track to enact a sensible measure to guard against future cases. A bill to end the state’s “personal belief” exemption for the measles vaccine, which allows parents to leave children unimmunized, has passed the Senate in the capital city of Olympia. A similar measure is on track to pass in the House.
It is an exercise in frustration to compare this swift reaction with the Minnesota Legislature’s failure to take a similar, necessary step. Two years ago, a measles outbreak that began in the Somali-American community sickened 65 people, most of them young children who were not vaccinated. Yet lawmakers here failed in 2017 and again in 2018 to close the same nonmedical loophole as Washington lawmakers.
Now, with 626 confirmed measles cases in 22 states in yet another outbreak, Minnesota legislators are poised again to do absolutely nothing. It’s disgraceful that a state that’s home to world-class medical centers lacks the political leadership necessary to enact a policy to protect babies, the elderly and the immunocompromised from a serious, highly infectious disease.
Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, has led the charge previously to tighten Minnesota’s “personal belief” exemption for school immunizations as vaccine conspiracy theories metastasize online. A small but vocal group of activists — who peddle the long-discredited link between the vaccine and autism, along with other falsehoods — have helped thwart this.
This year, House DFL leadership opted to try a softer approach — one that should have been a no-brainer to pass in the midst of a national outbreak. Instead of tightening vaccine exemptions, Freiberg offered a bill, HF1182, to fund two years of educational campaigns to counter vaccine disinformation. The grants smartly would have targeted communities where vaccination rates have dipped. Health officials have estimated the grant program could be implemented effectively for around $1 million — a tiny fraction of the state’s health spending.
The grant program, however, did not make it into the House’s large health and human services bill, meaning it’s unlikely to pass this year. Nor did its companion bill in the Senate gain traction. Inquiries to DFL and Republican legislative leadership didn’t yield satisfactory explanations why.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka was not available for comment. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman told an editorial writer that there’s strong opposition in Senate GOP health care leadership to closing or tightening vaccine exemptions. That this measure or others likely wouldn’t clear the Senate diminished the appetite for taking this on in the House. Hortman also said vaccine opponents were loud and proponents were far too quiet, rendering a measles public health response a public policy “orphan.”
No legislation is really ever dead until adjournment. While the Freiberg grant bill wasn’t a cure-all, it was still a responsible step to take. The state’s doctors, nurses and hospitals need to loudly wield their lobbying clout on a last-ditch mission to get this measure passed. Legislators need to heed them and the urgent message coming from Gov. Tim Walz’s administration.
“This is a public health crisis that’s become more urgent in recent months. In 2017, Minnesotans saw the impact a measles outbreak can have on our state. While there are no reported cases currently in Minnesota, I expect legislators to take action this session to strengthen Minnesota’s defense against this threat,” Walz said Tuesday.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm also weighed in: “It’s time for Minnesota legislators to pass a measure like the one Rep. Mike Freiberg introduced this session to target immunization education in communities with low immunization rates, and we urge the Legislature to act on this during the 2019 session.”
Doing nothing should not be an option. It’s unfortunate that Minnesota is home to well-organized anti-vaccine activists. But it’s not the only state where this is true. Washington state’s anti-vaxxers are also loud and willing to flex their political muscle. Lawmakers there weren’t intimidated. Minnesota’s shouldn’t be, either.