TOPEKA — Kansas Sen. Mark Steffen championed legislation Monday prohibiting the state health secretary from requiring new immunizations, specifically the COVID-19 vaccine, for children to attend school or day care.
Under current law, students are required to receive certain immunizations before they attend school. The secretary for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment can amend the list should the need arise.
Senate Bill 212 would cut the state health secretary’s authority to add new immunizations to that list. KDHE may still remove vaccinations from the list under the bill, but adding vaccinations would require approval through the Legislature.
Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican and board-certified anesthesiologist, clashed with Rep. John Eplee, a Republican physician from Atchison, over the dangers of enacting such limitations and the need to mandate vaccines. Proponents of the bill, who were largely maskless, echoed Steffen in cautioning legislators against requiring what they called a nonconsensual experimental drug injection.
Opponents of the measure pointed to emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for several drug companies’ vaccines after adequate testing, but Steffen remained steadfastly opposed to mandating a novel treatment with potentially unknown side-effects.
“Used appropriately, vaccines are a great, great thing. As a physician, I have recommended them to many individuals,” Steffen said. “I have never once mandated a treatment, nor have any of the other doctors who will show up later. Why in the world would we allow (KDHE secretary) Lee Norman to mandate anything?”
A similar bill, inspired by the addition in 2019 of meningitis and hepatitis A vaccines, was introduced in the House last session but died in committee after receiving a hearing. The renewed effort before the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee is one of two bills championed by Steffen pushing back against vaccine requirements.
Eplee, a Republican physician from Atchison, called the bill a solution in search of a problem. He said concerns regarding the safety of the vaccine were insignificant compared to the hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide from COVID-19.
“I’ll simply state that vaccines are the second-largest breakthrough for saving lives and public health in our nation, next to drinking water,” Eplee said. “Vaccine science is far better left in the capable hands of scientists and experts rather than legislators. The secretary of KDHE is fully capable of making the right, timely decisions about which immunizations should be on the required list.”
Norman picked up Eplee’s thread on the importance of timely decision-making in these matters. New immunizations are rarely added to the list, he said, and Steffen’s legislation would hinder the ability to make changes should an emergency arise.
“Weighing the impact of the protection of those who are at greatest risk for infection and who cannot be protected by vaccines must be considered,” Norman said. “Timely response to medical advancement and awareness of the risk associated with vaccines which have an impact on human life is vital to managing the vaccine requirements.”
Vaccination mandate concerns
Those backing the bill, like William Mize, expressed concerns with the supposed politicization of vaccine requirements.
Mize, an Overland Park attorney, used a 2017 effort to add a meningitis vaccine to the mandatory list as an example. The health secretary at the time denied this suggestion, and a subsequent bill was rejected by the Senate.
This indicated clear opinion-based decision-making and a need for oversight of KDHE in that process, Mize said. This bill would place the decision back into the hands of parents through elected representatives, he said.
“Kansas parents deserve a say in whether their school children — who have been shown to have little likelihood of suffering from COVID-19 — should be required to take such a vaccine, especially one that has been so rushed through the approval process by an industry that is exempted from all liability for any ill effects caused to these children,” Mize said.
Connie Newcome, the founder of Kansans for Health Freedom, said the decision could not be entrusted to KDHE. She said the department is a “puppet” that does as they are told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices.
“They regurgitate what they are told to do by agencies who receive funding and influence from pharma,” Newcome said. “The egregious policy of forcing vaccines intramuscularly into healthy children for illnesses they would almost never have needs a thorough re-think.”
Parents know their children better than doctors and are often better educated about immunizations, she said.
“If a product is safe and wonderful, it does not need indemnity. Neither does it need to be mandated,” she said. “People are not stupid. They should not be insulted. Let them have the right to say yes or no for any reason and without recrimination.”
Backing the requirements
Pediatricians and school nurses defended the decision-making process for the required vaccination list. Like proponents, they worried about politicization of the issue but instead thought the bill would only further intensify the politicization.
Shelby Ostrom, program director for the Mid America Immunization Coalition, which provides advocacy on the benefits of vaccines, said continued oversight by KDHE separate from the legislative process was vital in maintaining and improving public health in Kansas.
“There is a rigorous process already in place, grounded in science, which best serves Kansans,” Ostrom said. “This is a process that has and should continue to be separate from the political arena.”
Sarah Irsik-Good, a member of the Immunize Kansas Coalition board of directors, said misinformation, not data, was driving concerns of the vaccine and its efficacy. Legislators being told they need to act now to because child use of the COVID-19 vaccine will be approved in the summer are being misled, she said.
Trials for children 12 years and up will not even have data until this summer, and trials for younger children have yet to begin, Irsik-Good said.
“As such, there is no good reason to consider changing this policy now,” she said. “Additionally, current practice in Kansas is already aligned with the national best practice for protecting the health and wellbeing of our children.”
Irsik-Good said all 50 states have statutes related to mandatory school vaccinations, and each state allows its health department to make other requirements in order to quickly respond to changes in recommendations by health experts.
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, brought up surveys showing large numbers of frontline workers who were refusing to receive the new vaccine. He asked proponents how this could be required for students if even medical professionals were hesitant.
Kelly Sommers, of the Kansas State Nurses Association, said the question was a valid one given some of the apprehension, but as more information and education opportunities become available, more frontline workers are accepting the vaccine.
“We haven’t had time to educate ourselves regarding this vaccine because we’ve been so busy saving the lives of others,” Sommers said. “We want to continue to educate and advocate on behalf of the public before we would ever make something mandated for a child and continue to research and follow evidence-based practices.”