As the coronavirus brings into sharp focus the importance of vaccines, Gov. Mike DeWine said this week that he is not ready to ask state lawmakers to remove a catch-all exemption in Ohio law that allows parents to forego immunizations for their children.
“I don’t think we’re ready to do that. What is concerning is that during this period of time, people have pulled back and they’ve also pulled back from getting vaccines … basic health care, well baby check-ups, etc,” DeWine said. “Vaccines are something that I understand that some people don’t want their children to do, but from a medical point of view the evidence is abundantly clear that it’s important for society for that to take place.”
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In order to attend, every student is supposed to have evidence of all required shots or submit an exemption by 14 days into the school year. Ohio law, though, allows wide latitude for exemptions, including religious, medical or “reasons of conscience.”
“It’s something that we will watch but I don’t think that’s a bridge that we have to cross at this point,” DeWine said.
Melissa Wervey Arnold, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in the wake of coronavirus, there needs to be a conversation about removing the reasons of conscience exemption in state law.
“Maybe we need to look at this now because Ohio is one of the only states that allows for a personal philosophical exemption,” she said. “And for us, it’s about respecting parents’ beliefs but it’s also about respecting others. Your personal choices can’t harm others.”
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said the coronavirus might be giving people new appreciation for the importance of vaccinations.
“Most vaccines are very, very safe, so I think vaccines are important for children,” she said. “We still lose a lot of children to preventable diseases. Children still die from chicken pox, they still die from measles.”
DeWine and Acton’s responses didn’t sit well with the Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, a group that opposes government health mandates.
In a Facebook post, the group raised questions about whether the government will require people to be vaccinated against coronavirus or “invent methods for social engineering people into vaccinating.”
“Everyone in the health freedom movement and those in the liberty-minded movements need to remain vigilant. Just 24 hours ago we were fighting over-reaching universal masking mandates for retail business employees and customers. When a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, no doubt we’ll be fighting that mandate also,” the statement says.
RELATED: Ohio may require schools to tell parents how easy it is to skip vaccinations
Legislation pending in the Ohio House would require school districts to inform parents of the existing exemptions.
“HB132 is a common sense piece of legislation aimed at increasing our constituents’ knowledge of their medical rights that currently exist under Ohio law,” said state Rep. Don Manning, R-New Middletown, in his sponsor testimony last year. Manning died March 20.
Ohio school districts are challenged by a lack of standard vaccination data and can have a hard time getting information from parents. Some schools are vulnerable to viruses because of pockets of unvaccinated children who receive exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons.
RELATED: Ohio schools challenged by vaccine exemptions, data challenges
Protesters demonstrating against DeWine and Acton’s shutdown orders during the coronavirus emergency have carried anti-vaccination signs.
Paige McCorkle sent an email to the Dayton Daily News following the question posed to DeWine about whether he’d support removing the “reasons of conscience” as a legal exemption.
“Ohioans want and will demand this exemption stay in place!! I will not be mandated to take any vaccines that I do not agree to, and it is my right to have freedom of choice in my health care and what goes into my body!” she said.
During the pandemic emergency, many parents and pediatricians have postponed well-child visits when scheduled immunizations are typically given.
In 2019, there were 1,282 cases of measles in 31 states — the largest number of cases in the U.S. since 1992, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the cases were among people who were not vaccinated against measles, the CDC reports.
“We know that Ohio doesn’t have a great vaccination rate as it is. Not getting the well-child visits, particularly for infants and toddlers, will impact that already low vaccination rate,” said Shannon Jones of GroundWorks Ohio.
Well-child visits are important for vaccinations, early development screenings and touching base with parents, which is particularly important during the pandemic when families are under stress, she said.
“Infants and toddlers are differently impacted by the stress that families are experiencing at home,” she said.
Staff Writer Kaitlin Schroeder contributed to this story.