Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


The public alert issued late last week by the Minnesota Department of Health served notice that measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases haven't been vanquished. Instead, they're still out there waiting for our collective guard to drop — a reality that presidential candidates' rhetoric should reflect.

On Friday, state health officials warned that Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) patients or visitors may have been exposed to measles if they were there from May 21 at 11 p.m. through May 22 at 6 a.m. Three siblings from Anoka County developed symptoms after traveling abroad and sought care on the premises. Measles is considered one of the world's most contagious diseases, with serious complications that are rare but include blindness, a brain infection, severe breathing problems and ear infections, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

State health officials are urging those who were at HCMC during that window to check their vaccination status, additionally advising those who are immunocompromised or pregnant to contact their primary care provider. Those who are unvaccinated or too young to get the shot, such as children under 1 year of age, "are at risk of getting measles and could develop symptoms within 7 to 21 days of exposure," officials said.

The potential measles exposures at one of Minnesota's largest hospitals underscores the need for responsible oratory by those seeking the presidency. That's why former President Donald Trump's remarks regarding vaccines during a May 17 visit to Minnesota require rebuke.

Trump was in St. Paul for Minnesota Republicans' annual Lincoln Reagan dinner. "The crowd erupted into the loudest applause of the night and a standing ovation when Trump said he would cut off funding to any school teaching critical race theory as well as any school with a vaccine mandate," according to the Star Tribune's coverage.

Neither of those is sensible policy, but the vaccine funding threat shows reckless disregard for public health. Millions of children safely receive the measles vaccine and other routine childhood immunizations each year. Unfortunately, vaccination trends among children are headed in the wrong direction.

"While vaccination rates vary by state, the majority of states experienced declines in the share of kindergartners up to date on their vaccines," reports KFF, a respected health care policy organization. Even a small percentage decrease translates to thousands, even hundreds of thousands of children unprotected against still-dangerous diseases, it notes.

Those seeking higher office should be encouraging vaccination to counter this alarming decline. Trump's decision to do the opposite is particularly frustrating. It was under his administration that "Operation Warp Speed" brought COVID-19 vaccines to market at remarkable speed, saving millions of lives. Instead of claiming credit for this historic accomplishment, Trump is undermining confidence in immunizations with his irresponsible remarks and threat to pull federal funding for schools that are protecting children's health.

That's essentially all K-12 schools. "All 50 states have legislation requiring specified vaccines for students," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with exemptions for medical reasons or sometimes personal beliefs.

Robert F. Kennedy, an independent presidential candidate who embraces vaccine conspiracy theories, also merits rebuke but he's also not the Republican presidential front-runner and former incumbent.

Trump's Minnesota vaccine remarks are even more disappointing because this isn't the first time he's made them. "I will not give one penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate or a mask mandate," Trump reportedly said at an appearance earlier this year in Richmond, Va. The remarks came in the wake of a new report estimating an 18% increase in measles cases worldwide from 2021 to 2022, along with a 43% increase in estimated measles deaths for the same period.

Public health experts criticized the Richmond remarks, but the former president doubled down in St. Paul.

Trump's lack of clarity regarding which vaccines he's talking about is also alarming. An editorial writer's inquiry received no reply from The "Office of Donald J. Trump." In other news reports, Trump staffers have said he's only referring to COVID-vaccination mandates for students, not routine immunization requirements for other diseases.

If that's the case, his remarks need to spell that out clearly at future campaign stops. And if he's only referencing COVID vaccinations, his words are still harmful with the virus continuing to circulate and vaccination one of the key defenses against it.

It should also be noted that Trump is promising nothing if he's just talking about the COVID shot. Minnesota has not added the COVID shot to required school immunizations. Nor does any other state have a statewide COVID shot student mandate, according to Immunize.org. A sizable number have actually banned requiring this shot.

There are serious questions about a president's constitutional authority to withhold federal funding to schools for this reason. But there are also serious questions about whether a second Trump term would respect these guardrails. For the 2022-23 school year, federal funding provided about 6% of total costs of elementary and secondary education in Minnesota, according to a Minnesota House research report. That may not seem like much, but a cut that size would translate to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Minnesota Medical Association issued this statement after Trump's speech: "We need more of our school-age children vaccinated. Even small dips in immunization rates can lead to disease outbreaks and, most concerning, serious complications for vulnerable people. This does not just impact the families who choose not to get their children vaccinated — it can have serious consequences on those who cannot get vaccinated due to other health risks. Vaccines save lives and, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, they are safe."

This is what responsible public health messaging looks like, and it's what voters should expect from candidates seeking office at any level.