Colorado vaccine bill – Gov. Jared Polis signs SB163 into law

This article, about the 2020 Colorado vaccine bill, was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

On June 7, 2020, Colorado’s House Health Committee heard testimony on SB163, a bill to improve vaccine rates. In spite of the pressure and aggressive – and dishonest – tactics from bill opponents, the committee voted to move the bill forward to the appropriations committee, from where it would go to the House floor and, if passed, to the governor’s desk.

On June 26, 2020, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law. 

About the Colorado Vaccine Bill, SB163

The Colorado vaccine bill, SB163, is an extremely moderate bill. It does a couple of things that can improve Colorado’s vaccine rate. Most importantly, it will require parents who are exempting their children from vaccines to meet an educational requirement, it will require parents to be notified of their school aggregate vaccine rates, and it improves tracking of exemptions.

It does not, however, remove any exemptions, it does not change who sets the schedule – the Board of Health already decides which vaccines are required for school – it does not violate students privacy, since it only shares aggregate rates, and it does not force parents to be part of an online registry. 

Yet all of these claims were made by opponents about the bill. 

Anti-vaccine efforts against SB163

The fact that opponents, like Hear This Well, needed to misrepresent the Colorado vaccine bill to generate opposition can be explained by the fact that if presented accurately, such a moderate bill would not lead to passionate objection from any reasonable person.

The effort to rally opponents for this hearing involved many of the same misrepresentations, for example, untruthfully claiming the bill will remove legislative power to add vaccine, and that many new vaccines will be added quickly, and that this is a precursor to removing all vaccines exemptions. Anti-vaccine posts also included threatening sub-texts, referring to bringing firearms and to bringing megaphones and more.

Colorado vaccine bill

Anti-vaccine groups brought in Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has a history of promoting anti-vaccine misinformation, and stated that he will “… explain publicly the modern Tuskegee experiment reported by a Senior CDC Lead Scientist indicating that black children have more adverse vaccine reactions than white children.” 

This is an obvious reference to the disproven CDC Whistleblower conspiracy theory, and is an especially cynical effort to capitalize on the reaction to George Floyd’s murder and calls for racial justice. It was somewhat undermined, however, by the anti-vaccine groups’ choice to have racist activist Michelle Malkin as their other speaker

In the lead up to the bill, Republicans engaged in open delay tactics, including filibustering bipartisan bills. This is strange, since support for vaccines is high in Colorado, and bipartisan. While Colorado has higher exemption rates than elsewhere in the country, the vast majority of people there vaccinate. 

It is possible that Republican voters are courting the anti-vaccine minority to this extent because, although small, that minority is both single issue focused and passionate, so the benefits of their support go beyond their electoral or representative power. It is arguably, however, whether catering to the anti-vaccine minority is fair representation of constituents in general.

Several hundreds, maybe up to a thousand, anti-vaccine activists attended the hearing, though not all were from Colorado – for example, anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, and several activists from other states, including California.

The hearing provided 90 minutes of testimony to the opposition and 90 minutes of testimony for those in support. The opposition testimony was, at least in part, very extreme, in tension with the extremely moderate scope of the bill.

For example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. argued that all vaccines science and vaccine recommendations are held hostage by pharmaceutical companies (though was unable to point to a specific problem with the Colorado vaccine bill itself).

Michelle Malkin also argued that vaccines are unsafe, and implied that the bill harms the ability of people to decide what goes into their body (although the bill does not remove exemptions, and does not touch adults at all), and suggested that public health experts cannot be trusted because the knowledge about Covid-19 changed over time.

Activist Robyn Ross argued that the bill made school vaccine rates known in order to set children on their unvaccinated classmates (even though the rates reported are aggregated, and no child will be named), and claimed it will result in child suicides. This comment is especially strange since, as Ms. Ross pointed out, rates are already publicly available – the bill just adds the rate to the annual letter about vaccines sent to parents.

The view that including the rate in the letter would make a dramatic difference in children’s behavior makes several assumptions, including that children care about what’s in that letter. Those assumptions seem hard to support.

An anti-vaccine doctor claimed that the bill will hurt people and suggested vaccines are bad and harmful. A daughter of an anti-vaccine activist expressed her concern that her classmates will discover her identity and hound her (although, again, the bill only includes disclosing aggregate rates – and she testified in public).

The committee was extremely courteous to the young girl, correctly. More reasonably, some commenters raised concerns about the privacy of data entered into the database.

The room was cleared between the opposition and support testimony. In between, the anti-vaccine organizers called for their members to go into the halls and make loud noises to disrupt the other side. It is hard not to see these disruptive tactics as further evidence that the anti-vaccine organizers knew they did not have legitimate arguments against this moderate bill.

The testimony in support included parents who lost children to preventable diseases, parents of vulnerable children who depend on herd immunity, doctors, and public health officials, explaining why the bill is needed, and pointing out its moderate nature.

After that, members made speeches. The bill passed out of committee along party lines, 7:4.

The bill now moves to the appropriations committee, and then to the house floor. If it passes the floor, it will go to the governor’s desk.

UPDATE – it’s on the way to the governor

On June 9, 2020, the Colorado House passed SB163. The bill was passed with one amendment that gives opponents 90 days to collect the required number of signatures – apparently, 124,632 – to put the statute on the ballot for citizen vote. The practical effect is to delay a bit when the bill will take effect, and if opponents get the number of signatures, to delay it until after the vote (if the vote goes against the statute, it will not become law).

The bill now has to go back to the senate, and then to the governor’s desk.

UPDATE – Governor Polis signs the bill into law

On Friday, June 26, 2020, Governor Jared Polis signed the final version of SB163 into law – without a petition clause. Congratulations, Colorado!

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.