Public health officials and medical professionals testified Thursday against a state health department proposal that would weaken vaccination requirements at child care centers for children and staff.
The changes are part of a proposed rule change by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. Under the changes, children will be allowed to attend childcare centers and nurseries without vaccinations against polio, measles, diphtheria and other diseases if they receive a religious exemption based on a statement of “religious belief, observance or practice”.
The rule would also strike vaccine requirements for child care facility staff and volunteers and end the collection of immunization records and documentation for employees.
Health department staff attorney Allison Drake said the rule change was created to comply with Senate Bill 215, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by the Legislature last year.
“The department proposes to recognize a religious exemption for a child attending a child care program,” Drake said.
She added that the proposal to remove vaccination requirements and documentation for staff is intended to help reduce workforce recruitment challenges for child care centers.
No proponents spoke during Thursday’s public comment period.
About a dozen people voiced opposition to the rule, including medical professionals, lawyers and parents who stressed the importance of vaccinations in preventing outbreaks of serious and deadly diseases among infants and children. Current and retired pediatricians asked the health department to consider child care facilities serving vulnerable young children who have not completed their scheduled immunizations or may not be able to do so because they are immunized. Public health advocates also testified about the impacts disease outbreaks can have on already strained child care environments, communities and local economies.
“Licensed child care facilities have always been a safe zone for all children, and the current child care immunization requirements provide just that: critical safety and protection against 11 diseases,” said Lisa Casper, executive director of the Child Care Association. Montana Public Health Officials. “By adding non-medical exemptions and removing staff immunization requirements, the department is posing an extraordinary health risk within child care settings for infants who have not yet completed their vaccine schedule and for children who are immunocompromised.”
Casper and other health experts, including practicing and retired pediatricians, said they understand the importance of accounting for specific religious exemptions, but noted that broader exemptions undermine the goals of herd immunity, which Casper called “critical” to young children and licensed childcare facilities.
Nick Domitrovich, the state health department’s former acting chief legal counsel who left his post in July 2021, also testified in opposition to the proposed rule, arguing that the religious exemption language is too broad.
“What we’re talking about is not an exemption based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” Domitrovich said, but a “broad policy exemption” for childcare immunizations.
“The state health department is throwing out all our babies with the bathwater of an imaginary oppressed mass,” he continued. “This proposal in bad faith undermines the overall goals and mission of this agency and undermines public confidence in the agency’s ability to address the public health challenges of the day.”
Other opponents included Maria Wyrock, a prominent activist with Montanans for Vaccine Choice, which opposes vaccine mandates. She said the proposed rule change would improperly lump together a variety of day care centers and child care programs, creating more red tape for groups that fall outside of licensed child care facilities. But she clarified that she disagrees with health care providers and public health advocates who testified before her about what counts as a religious exemption.
“I am personally offended by every single person who thinks they know what my religious freedom is and can dictate what an organization or some religious or clerical group has said is the holy grail of religious freedom,” Wyrock said.
Other opponents included Martin Finnegan, a parent who said he usually opposes heavy-handed government regulation. In this case, he said, one person’s medical choices can significantly affect other members of the community.
“This is definitely not right,” he said. “My kids could be in the same daycare, and you’re putting them at risk.”
The Department of Health’s Office of Legal Affairs will accept public comments on the proposed changes by email and mail until 5:00 p.m. on Friday, September 2.
This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.