Vaccine waivers are hyper-political in Wisconsin

By: - October 18, 2019 10:05 am
Mother holding her son as he gets a vaccination

MIAMI, FL – India Ampah holds her son, Keon Lockhart, 12 months old, as pediatrician Amanda Porro M.D. administers a measles vaccination during a visit to the Miami Children’s Hospital. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Winter is coming.

In Wisconsin, that’s flu season and reminders are all around to get your annual flu shot. With measles spreading again in other states, those public service announcements abound, too.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation partnered to promote immunizations through PSA’s recorded in Spanish by Brewers’ Yasmani Grandal and Manny Pina
Wisconsin DHS and the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation partnered to promote immunizations with Spanish PSA’s recorded by Brewers catchers’ Yasmani Grandal and Manny Pina (Photo courtesy of DHS)

Vaccines are strongly supported by most doctors, medical associations, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Yet the topic of immunizations is so contentious in Wisconsin that a bill that would likely boost vaccination rates is unlikely to even get a public hearing.

As measles have been reported in 31 other states this year, a bipartisan bill championed by Assembly Democratic leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) and Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), that is designed to get more children vaccinated in Wisconsin, remains mired in controversy.

At the beginning of this school year, approximately 50,000 children in Wisconsin attended class without getting their required vaccinations.

Wisconsin is one of just 15 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, where residents can refuse required vaccinations due to personal conviction or philosophical objections. Parents make the decision for their children. Under current state law, there are three viable paths to opt out of vaccines. In addition to personal conviction waivers, Wisconsin has a provision for medical necessity and another for religious objections. 

This contentious bill, which is currently sitting in committee, would remove only the personal conviction waiver.

“I believe in vaccinations and I hardly ever get sick,” says Carpenter. “But we’re not trying to make everybody get vaccinated.”

Where Wisconsin stands

Wisconsin ranks 20th among states for immunized populations. The state does better with adults, but is below average on the percentages of vaccinated children and teens, coming in 35th in the nation, according to a study released on Oct. 2 by WalletHub

Source: WalletHub

The percentage of students with a waiver (personal conviction, religious or medical) for one or more immunizations increased from 1.6% during the 1997-98 school year to 5.3% during the 2018-19 school year, according to DHS statistics.

Graph of Wisconsin students immunization rates from 1997-2019
WISCONSIN SCHOOL IMMUNIZATION RATES from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

While use of the medical and religious exemptions has stayed relatively level, the personal conviction exemption is being used with increasing frequency, says Stephanie Schauer, the immunization program director for the state Department of Health Services (DHS).

“In the latest school data for the 2018-19 school year we see that 92% of school-aged children met minimum vaccination requirements, which does not mean all vaccines, just minimum requirements,” says Schauer.

Four vials labeled measles vaccine MMR
Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. (Photo by Illustration Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With measles in particular, the bar is set high to prevent the spread of the disease. “You want to see 95% with measles vaccines,” she says. While it varies by disease, health organizations promote 90-95% for what experts call “herd immunity.” (As of Oct. 1, 1,250 cases of measles have been reported, with none reported in Wisconsin.)

DHS has an interactive map to check your school vaccination rate, which shows large areas where Wisconsin schools drop below 90% and several below 80%.  

The danger of exposure is greatest for patients who cannot be immunized for medical reasons. But while Schauer would like to see more than the current four out of every 10 Wisconsinites vaccinated against influenza, she says Wisconsin fares well in many respects: “It’s important for people to remember that most people are vaccinated.”

Vaccines spread political strife

Last Wednesday, as the vaccine bill sat untouched in an Assembly committee, a group called Wisconsin United for Freedom sent its members at the Capitol to lobby against it. It’s something the group, which says it wants all people to have the freedom to choose to vaccinate or forego vaccinations, does regularly. 

On Sept. 25, there were vaccine events with opposing perspectives at the Capitol. Hintz held an informational forum with doctors on the importance of vaccinations. The same day, Wisconsin United for Freedom held an event at the Capitol called “Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy.” 

“Digging into the issue I discovered we have the most liberal exemption policy among the states,” says Hintz, who introduced a similar bill three years ago that never advanced from committee, although this time there are bipartisan co-sponsors which was not the case previously. “While our [vaccination] numbers are still high in Wisconsin, we are trending in the wrong direction.”

Hintz asserts that in the Assembly, what is holding the bill back is pure political manipulation by Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester).

“Robin sent it to a committee chaired by [Republican Rep.] Chuck Wichgers, who spoke at an anti-vax rally. It was intentional,” says Hintz. “It seems a little obvious to choose a committee that has nothing to do with health that has a chair that is against vaccines.” 

State Rep. Gordon Hintz D-Oshkosh
Rep. Gordon Hintz

He adds: “It’s part of a scary trend of anti-science taking hold.”

Legislative leaders choose which committees bills are sent to, and in this case Vos sent the vaccine bill to Wichger’s the Committee on Constitution and Ethics

Wichgers has stated in the past that he feels it should be a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate. Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) told Wisconsin Public Radio that Wichgers “basically said he’s going to kill the bill” so he did not see it moving forward.

Wisconsin Examiner obtained screenshots of posts from the locked private Facebook group Wisconsin for Vaccine Choice. The group, with 1,780 members, appears to include Vos’ longtime chief of staff, Jenny Toftness. The group describes itself as, “a non partisan group that promotes fully informed and educated decisions concerning vaccines. We support each citizens constitutional right to vaccine exemptions for personal and religious reasons, and our right to be free of vaccine mandates”  

“Considering the fact that Wisconsin communities are at risk of a measles outbreak…and Vos isn’t supporting the elimination of the personal conviction waiver or taking any real action to prevent this, I think it’s worth asking what role his own chief of staff is having in this decision-making process,” says Courtney Beyer, Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesperson. “This is a public health crisis waiting to happen, and Vos’ refusal to take action should be scrutinized.”

Wichgers, his two staff members and Vos’s spokeswoman Kit Beyer did not respond to multiple contacts asking for their opinions on the bill, the reason for the selected committee or whether personal beliefs on vaccines played a role in why this bill is not being taken up in committee. Should they respond, this story will be updated.

Gov. Tony Evers had stated publicly that he would sign a bill eliminating personal-conviction waivers. In August, he tweeted, “Vaccines are some of the safest and most effective medical products out there, and are the best defense against diseases that can be dangerous, even deadly. We need folks to get vaccinated to ensure the health of our kids and our communities.”

Doctors’ recommendations

Carpenter, the state Senate author of the bill to eliminate the personal conviction waiver, feels the removal of the waiver is needed because “our immunization rates are not what they should be.” He has included the topic in surveys he has sent to constituents, brought it up at town halls and found “the majority of people are for it” with just a few opposed. He believes discussion on the bill could help combat false information circulating on the Internet.

State Senator Tim Carpenter
Sen. Tim Carpenter

“The biggest thing for me is that the majority of science-based professionals came out against the personal conviction waiver,” says Carpenter. “I can remember back to quarantine days when we had law enforcement being used to keep people inside, including one guy in Milwaukee who was caught sneaking out to go to the gym.”

Registered to lobby in favor of the bill are: Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Wisconsin  Hospital Association, Wisconsin Medical Society, Aurora Health Care, Medical College of Wisconsin, Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin, Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, Wisconsin Association of School Nurses, Wisconsin Health Association and others.

Major international health groups strongly encourage immunizations. 

Vaccines are actually very safe, despite implications to the contrary in many anti-vaccine publications. Most vaccine adverse events are minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or mild fever,” according to the World Health Organization.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta website similarly notes: “ Vaccines are very safe. The United States’ long-standing vaccine safety system ensures that vaccines are as safe as possible. Currently, the United States has the safest vaccine supply in its history.”

Registered to lobby against the bill is just one group, The Chiropractic Society of Wisconsin.

photo of chiropractor Wade Anunson
Dr. Wade Anunson DC

Dr. Wade Anunson, legislative co-chair for the chiropractors, who has a longstanding practice in Madison, stresses his group is not against vaccines.

“I have never been anti-vax. In my 26 years in practice, I have never told anyone not to get vaccines,” says Anunson. “It isn’t anti-vax or pro-vax, it’s a patient’s right to choose. Our stance is neutrality.”

He cites the Reagan administration removing liability from pharmaceutical companies for vaccine reactions, as the beginning of the problem, as well as the point where the number of required vaccines began to rise.

“We are the last non-pharmaceutical primary health care providers and patients can come see us directly without referrals,” says Anunson. He adds that doctors he talks to are afraid to report negative vaccine reactions or speak out against immunizations because they are part of a pharmaceutical model of care.

“Forcing [vaccines] into a body without choice under the guise of protecting the herd,” is coercion, he says. “And getting rid of the [personal conviction waiver] is the first step, a foothold in the door. We are seeing the religious exemption rolled back in other states. And pretty soon you have a handpicked group of advisors deciding who doesn’t have to get vaccines.” Currently several states, including Maine and New York, have bills to eliminate the religious conviction waiver.

Hintz, who has two young children, has heard from doctors on this issue, who have told him immunizations are “the best thing we can do to stem the tide” of spreading disease. He fears that “the trends are going to get worse before they get better.”  

Schauer, from DHS, stresses that for anyone who has questions on vaccines, the best thing they can do is talk to their own healthcare provider or ask at a local tribal, city or county health department. (Families that cannot afford immunizations should look to the Vaccines for Children Program.)

Says Schauer: “It’s important to get answers for anyone who has concerns.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.