Rep. Paul Harris recalled sitting in his office at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday when he received a text informing him that one of his key priorities for the current legislative session was dead.
In January, the Vancouver Republican, along with Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, sponsored House Bill 1638 to eliminate the state’s personal or philosophical exemption for the requirement that children receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination before attending school.
Washington is among 17 states that allow the exemption. The opt-out has been blamed for a measles outbreak in Clark County that’s seen 73 confirmed cases, has spread to Oregon and the Seattle area and prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a public health emergency that’s cost over a million dollars.
The bill passed the House last month and Wednesday was the last day for it to pass out of the Senate before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on April 28. After getting the text, Harris left his office to walk over to the Senate thinking that he would have to wait until next session to reintroduce it.
But it turned out the bill had been properly brought to the Senate floor in time for the deadline. The bill later passed out of the chamber on a 25-22 vote. The vote followed a two-hour debate where Republican senators unsuccessfully introduced over a dozen amendments asking for additional studies, accountability from the state Department of Health, protections from possible vaccine injury, as well as new safeguards for the state’s religious and medical immunization exemptions, among others.
“I was very happy,” said Harris after finding out his bill was still alive. “I think this bill will protect and help our community.”
While the bill passed, the Senate floor debate revealed Republican senators’ unease, including two from Clark County, with mandating vaccination requirements and concerns about their safety.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, responded to criticisms of the bill during the debate. She said that since the measles vaccination was introduced in 1968, exposures dropped in Washington from 20,000 to less than 1,000 in one year. She also had a stark message for her fellow lawmakers.
“A vote against this bill is a vote against public health,” she said. “A vote against this bill is a vote against the safety of our public spaces.”
Both Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, voted against the bill after offering their own amendments. Both expressed concern that the bill was a step toward weakening the state’s religious and medical exemptions while undermining parental authority.
While Rivers said she was initially inclined to support the bill, she said she was dismayed after the Senate summarily voted down amendments offered by Republicans, who are in the minority in the chamber. Both were among other senators who questioned if the crisis had been overstated.
“We keep hearing ‘the science is settled, the science is settled,’ ” said Wilson. “It is not settled.”
Wilson said that there is a risk associated with vaccines, that there shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all” approach and that parents should be given a choice. She described how physicians frequently warned her about the possible side effects of treatments she’s undergoing for breast cancer. She spoke in favor of an amendment that required parents to be informed of the possible side effects of the vaccine.
Cleveland said such notification is already required.
Stating that she’s not anti-vaccine, Rivers said she had done research and spoken with doctors. She said that as more research is done on DNA, patients will have a better idea of how vaccines will affect them.
“I just think that whenever we educate parents and we empower them to make good decisions they do,” said Rivers. “No parent wants to hurt their child.”