West Virginia GOP wants exemptions for vaccines as measles spreads in 15 states

West Virginia’s Republicans passed a bill through the House of Delegates on Monday that would allow religious exemptions for vaccines required for school attendance. The bill comes as dozens of measles cases across 15 states have been reported. The bill will now head to the state Senate for debate. If the bill passes, it would be the first nonmedical vaccine exemption allowed in West Virginia.

The bill began as a proposal to eliminate vaccine requirements for public virtual schooling, but it has expanded to allow private schools the right to decide whether to require vaccinations for their students. Whether the bill would allow parents to exempt their child from a public school’s vaccine mandate remains unclear at this time, according to analysis from ABC News. 

The state GOP’s attempt to dismantle public health protections isn’t going over well with some West Virginians, though. Dr. Steven Eshenaur, the health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston health department, told the Associated Press, “It escapes sound reasoning why anyone would want to weaken childhood immunization laws. Our children are more important than any agenda that would bring these horrific diseases back to the Mountain State.”

Meanwhile, Republican-controlled Florida is in the midst of a measles outbreak at Manatee Bay Elementary School in Broward County. Seven of 10 statewide cases of measles have ties to the school, while the state’s Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo recently issued a letter that didn’t urge parents to make sure their children were immunized. Ladapo, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is best known for his vaccine denialism during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida has called for Ladapo to either resign or be fired. She said his handling of the Broward County outbreak has been “grossly irresponsible,” and calling Ladapo “a misinformation super spreader.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data in November showing that national vaccination rates among kindergartners have yet to return to their pre-pandemic levels, making West Virginia’s flirtation with religious-exemption policies that much more troubling. Currently, children in West Virginia are required to have at least one dose of chickenpox, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, diphtheria, polio, rubella, tetanus, and whooping cough before entering K-12 school for the first time.

By leaning into the right’s anti-science movement, GOP-controlled states are encouraging a new normal that includes outbreaks of childhood diseases once thought to be eliminated more than two decades ago.

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