With the backdrop of the coronavirus spreading around the world, Mainers on Tuesday rejected an attempt to nullify the elimination of religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccinations in a campaign that focused on community versus individual rights.
Every major medical organization in Maine supported the state law approved last year that reduces vaccine opt-outs at a time when more parents are forgoing vaccines for their children. Groups seeking to restore philosophical and religious exemptions contended parents, not lawmakers, should be responsible for making medical decisions for children.
The so called “People’s Veto” referendum, which was rejected, aimed to undo the law that ends nonmedical vaccine opt-outs by September 2021 for students at public and private schools and universities, including nursery schools, and for health care facility employees. The law was part of a trend of states tightening rules on vaccine exemptions in response to growing numbers of unvaccinated children.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills urged Mainers to uphold the new law, saying the spread of the coronarvirus underscores the importance of getting vaccinated.
After the COVID-19 virus was identified in China, “one of the first things that public health officials did was begin to work on a vaccine because vaccines save lives,” she said.
The Legislature’s action last year came against the backdrop of a spike in whooping cough cases in Maine.
Maine has one of the highest rates of nonmedical vaccine exemptions in the nation, and officials warned that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate among kindergarteners had dropped below 94%. That means half of kindergarten classes are below the “herd” immunity level of 95% immunization, state officials said.
Sanford resident Morgan-Lee Brooks, a Republican who voted Tuesday for President Donald Trump, said she voted “no” on the ballot referendum because she believes the non-medical vaccination exemptions should be eliminated.
“My son is going to be starting kindergarten,” Brooks said. “I’m going to vaccinate my son, so I feel that should be a requirement for anyone he’s going to school with.”
Fighting the medical establishment with the referendum was an assortment of Libertarians, Green Independents and others, including some parents who believe in vaccines but also support “medical choice.”
Eliot resident Andrea Martin, 37, who voted Tuesday for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, said she voted “yes” on the referendum in hopes of repealing the stricter law.
“I really, really, support vaccinations,” Martin said, “but people should have the right to choose.”
Much of the pro-referendum messaging targeted “Big Pharma,” a tactic that the law’s supporters called disingenuous. Those who support the law said it was deceitful to suggest the pharmaceutical industry had a vested interest in Maine’s law because vaccinations account for such a small fraction of pharmaceutical revenues, even though they account for billions of dollars in sales.