Emily Rice Published

Legislature Passes Vaccination Exemptions In Final Hours

A committee room full of doctors wearing their white coats surrounds Dr. Lisa Costello as she testifies before the Senate Health Committee.
Dr. Lisa Costello testifies before the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday, March 6.
Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

Previously, all students in West Virginia had to receive vaccines for diseases like polio and measles, unless they were homeschooled or medically exempt. 

House Bill 5105 now allows virtual public-school students to be exempt and for private and parochial schools to institute their own policies either exempting students or not.

West Virginia was one of five states that only allowed medical exemptions to vaccination before House Bill 5105 passed.

The bill’s original version excluded public virtual school students from vaccination. But, when it left the committee, there was an amendment requiring students involved in extracurricular activities to be vaccinated against chickenpox, hepatitis-b, measles, meningitis, mumps, diphtheria, polio, rubella, tetanus, and whooping cough.

More amendments came. The final version of the bill, as passed by both chambers, stipulates parents can’t sue private schools and school owners, administrators, boards and staffers for deciding whether to allow exemptions or not, as long as the school provides families with a notice for parents to sign acknowledging the policy annually and upon enrollment.

Calls For A Governor’s Veto

Statewide, health professionals and health organizations are calling for Gov. Jim Justice to veto the bill.

Dr. Steven Eschenaur, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Officer, published a statement on March 11, asking Justice to veto the bill. 

“As a Public Health Officer, experienced emergency room physician and veteran, I have seen first-hand the ravages of the diseases West Virginia’s current childhood immunization laws protect against,” Eschenaur’s- stated. “I am deeply worried about the consequences on public health with the passage of HB5105. By allowing philosophical exemptions to the law, we are weakening the public’s ability to prevent measles, mumps, tetanus, meningitis and polio.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its West Virginia Chapter sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice on March 14, urging Justice to veto the bill.

“As we continue to experience the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic and its impact on children’s health, we need strong policies that support our public health systems to fight diseases. West Virginia HB 5105 would remove certain schools from West Virginia’s school-entry immunization requirements under existing statute. AAP policy cautions states against expanding nonmedical exemptions for childhood immunizations to protect children where they learn and in the greater community where they live.”

In a press briefing on March 15, Justice expressed concern about the vaccine bill.

“We’re bombarded with calls, bombarded with calls,” Justice said. “You know, from ‘docs’ and all kinds of different people who say ‘what are we doing, what in the world are we doing?’” 

He said he wants to expand freedom but is unclear on the ramifications of the bill, if it is signed into law. 

“I had a gentleman just in my office not long ago,” Justice said. “You know, talking about when he was growing up, one of the family members had Polio.”

With seven days left to sign the bill, Justice said it’s premature to say what he will do.

According to the West Virginia Legislature website, while the Legislature is in session, the governor has five days to approve or veto a bill. After the Legislature adjourns, the governor has 15 days to act on most bills. If the governor does not act within these time limits, bills automatically become law without his or her signature.

In The House

Proponents of the bill described it as a matter of personal choice and religious freedom.

Del. Laura Kimble, R-Harrison, served as the lead sponsor on the bill.

Kimble said she drafted the bill after learning that students who attend school virtually must receive vaccines, which she called “absurd.”

“We live in West Virginia,” Kimble said. “We live in the United States of America. We have rights. We have the Constitution. We acknowledge that we’re guaranteed the right to religious liberty. Yet our West Virginia government continues to infringe on this right.”

Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, agreed, saying that vaccination should be a matter of personal choice.

“Why should the government mandate this? This is personal property, personal liberty and accountability,” Kump said. “I do not like vaccine mandates.”

But opponents on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that increasing leniency over vaccines would hurt public health. 

Del. Anitra Hamilton, D-Monongalia, said vaccines are an important way to curb public health emergencies.

“At the end of the day, this is about protecting not only our children, because if your children catch something, they’re going to take it home to the family,” Hamilton said. “What’s in the community will result in closures for businesses, and we don’t have the childcare to support the illnesses that will come.”

Del. J.B. Akers, R-Kanawha, said that the bill might also be unfair to families that cannot afford private education.

“I think that we are potentially creating an equal protection problem in the schools, because we’ll have a situation where if a parent can afford to send their child to a private or parochial school, then they will not have to be vaccinated,” Akers said.

Many bills concerning vaccine injury were introduced during this session. For example, House Bill 4401 would have required that all injuries and side effects from vaccines be reported by medical professionals to the Bureau for Public Health. The bill did not leave the committee.

According to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, in 2019, they received over 48,000 reports. About 85 to 90 percent of the reports described mild side effects such as fever, arm soreness, or mild irritability. The remaining reports are classified as serious.

After more than two hours of intense debate, lawmakers narrowly passed the bill by a vote of 57 to 41, with two delegates not voting.

Just days before the deadline for a bill to pass its initial chamber, the House successfully sent the bill to the Senate for further deliberation.

In The Senate

Senate Health Committee Wednesday afternoon after a lengthy discussion.

In front of a room full of white-coat-wearing physicians, senators discussed House Bill 5105  – a bill to eliminate vaccine requirements for public virtual schools, unless they participate in a West Virginia sanctioned athletics program.

As it arrived from the House, the bill allowed for religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. A parent or guardian would present a letter stating that the child cannot be vaccinated for religious reasons.

A strike and insert amendment ultimately passed after discussion narrowed those religious exemptions to private and parochial schools.

Committee members heard from physicians, a pharmacist and an academic, all with differing views on the issue.

Dr. Lisa Costello, a pediatric hospitalist at WVU Medicine Children’s in Morgantown and past president of the West Virginia State Medical Association, asked the committee to vote against the bill and maintain West Virginia’s current law that only allows for medical exemptions to vaccination.

“With immunizations, the decision that one person makes really impacts all of the other people around us,” Costello said. “We know that there are people who cannot have immunizations, and that’s why our policy as currently is law in West Virginia is the gold standard across the country and that we only allow medical exemptions as a condition for school entry.”

Alvin Moss, a professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and a member of West Virginians for Health Freedom, argued that vaccine mandates invalidate informed consent. Moss also testified that his family and friends were injured by vaccines.

“A mandatory policy goes against the whole idea of informed consent,” Moss said. “So, our current compulsory vaccination policy doesn’t allow informed consent, and if there were informed consent, then parents should be informed. I know, they receive vaccine information statements when they go to the pediatrician’s office, but they have been watered down over the last decade and don’t truly get into all the information that could be available if parents really knew where to look.”

Sen. Rolland Roberts, R-Raleigh, asked Chanda Adkins, a pharmacist, former delegate and member of West Virginians for Health Freedom, to testify before the committee.

“The conviction to vaccinate or to not vaccinate is a real thing,” Adkins said. “And so there are families out there saying, well, we choose private school, because we have a conviction for that type of education. I want to educate my children in light of God’s word because God’s word is going to be the foundation for my life and there are a lot of people watching today that are going to say, ‘we’re going to honor that.’ Because no government role is going to change. There’s going to be people that are not going to vaccinate their children because they’re living their conviction.”

The final person to testify before the Senate Health Committee was Dr. Steven Eschenaur, the health officer for the Kanawha Charleston Health Department. 

“I had a lot of opportunities to spend time in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and probably unlike most people here, I’ve actually seen all of these diseases, including polio in children in Afghanistan, where it’s still endemic,” Eschenaur said. “As a matter of what is best for the many, we know based upon what our predecessors, those who sat in these seats many years ago, when they enacted these laws.”

Sen. Tom Takubo, R- Kanawha, asked Eschenaur about how vaccines work and what might be misconstrued as an adverse reaction to a vaccine.

“So is it true that when you get a vaccine it is essentially tricking your immune system as if it thinks it’s been infected by that pathogen, and so therefore, you may get some of the signs and symptoms of the disease,” Takubo asked.

“That’s how all these vaccines work,” Eschenaur answered. “They introduce an antigen that’s like the disease but not the disease. It’s either a weakened form or a dead form. So that the human body then says, ‘Oh, I want to build an antibody.’ And those antibodies have what has been what has protected our communities for many, many years.”

The committee passed the bill after amending it to remove religious exemptions for public school students, but not for private and parochial school students.

Previous versions of the bill included religious exemptions for all students in West Virginia, but the version that made it to the Senate floor only included religious exemptions for private and parochial schools.

Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, and chair of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, presented the bill on the floor saying he “does not recommend it pass, but my committee does.”

He called the bill an embarrassment on the Senate floor before a vote.

“I took an oath to do no harm, there is no way I can vote for this bill,” he said.

 The bill passed by a vote of 20 to 12 with two senators absent.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Marshall Health.