By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans are preparing to again block a new policy from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that requires students to get vaccinated twice against meningitis and tightening student chickenpox vaccination mandates.
The Legislature’s GOP-controlled rules committee held a public hearing on the policy Tuesday. A committee vote to block the policy could soon follow, perhaps within days.
The committee’s co-chair, Republican Sen. Steve Nass, called the new provisions “arbitrary and capricious” in a message to constituents. The rules committee also blocked the policy in the last legislative session.
Officials with the state health department, an Evers Cabinet agency, announced in February they were trying again to implement regulations this fall that require students entering 7th grade to get vaccinated against meningitis. Students entering 12th grade must get a booster shot. Previously, the agency did not require any vaccinations against meningitis.
The health department also requires students to get vaccinated against chickenpox to enter every grade from kindergarten through 6th grade. In the past, a child was exempt if parents contacted the school district and said the child has already had the disease. Under the regulations beginning this fall, parents must provide evidence of infection from a health care provider to secure an exemption.
Families can still seek waivers from the meningitis vaccination and chickenpox proof requirements for medical, religious or philosophical reasons, just as they can for other vaccinations.
The agency also updated its definition of an outbreak to include five or more cases of chickenpox and three or more cases of meningitis. Nass aide Mike Mikalsen said that creates an undue hardship for students because under state health department rules, if an outbreak occurs in a school or child care center, students can be excluded until they’re immunized against the disease or until the department declares the outbreak over.
Dr. Stephanie Schauer, the state’s immunization program manager, told reporters on a conference call that the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices — experts who advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has recommended that students get vaccinated against meningitis since 2005, and state health officials have been developing the mandate since 2017. Many students are already vaccinated so the requirements shouldn’t be a burden, she said.
As for requiring documentation of a chickenpox infection to avoid vaccination, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer, told reporters on the same call that vaccinations have reduced chickenpox infections to the point that they’re difficult to identify and requiring proof of infection from a medical professional is the best way to protect children.
Republicans on the rules committee ripped the new policy during the hearing Tuesday.
Nass began the proceedings by calling Westergaard “Wisconsin’s Dr. Fauci,” drawing a round of applause from the crowd.
He questioned how lawmakers can trust anything Westergaard says after he recommended the state shut down at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nass also implied that the health department believes parents are lying about chickenpox infections to ensure their children aren’t vaccinated.
Tara Czachor, co-founder of Wisconsin United for Freedom, which describes itself as a group committed to “defending health freedom,” told the committee that people are tired of being bombarded with mandates from health officials
“We are fully capable of making our own decisions and running our own lives, no college degree required,” Czachor said. “The state has messed with my kids, all our kids, enough.”
Westergaard and Schauer gently pushed back.
Westergaard told Nass that scientists didn’t know how to deal with COVID-19 so they recommended the strictest protocols to slow its spread. Schauer said the health department doesn’t think parents are lying but that they may not recognize chickenpox because it is so rare.
Westergaard insisted that the policy is designed to give physicians as many tools as possible to slow disease and protect children. He told the committee that one of his classmates at UW-Madison lost an arm to meningitis and another died of the disease.
“If children die, their grieving families deserve to know we did everything we could to prevent them from dying,” he said. Public schools nationwide typically require vaccinations, although some exemptions are allowed.
But vaccine mandates have been a hot-button issue for Republicans, who have seen them as infringements on personal liberties since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
Vaccination rates for U.S. kindergartners have dropped for two years straight, according to a CDC study released in January.
Usually, 94% to 95% of kindergartners are vaccinated against measles, tetanus and certain other diseases, but those rates dropped below 94% in the 2020-21 school year, the first year of the pandemic, and fell again to 93% in the 2021-22 school year, the study found.
Mississippi, Georgia and Wisconsin saw the steepest declines, the study found. Wisconsin student immunization rates dropped from 91.9% in 2020-21 to 88.7% in 2021-22, according to state health department data. The percentage of Wisconsin students who were not vaccinated due to a personal conviction has grown from 2.7% in 2001-02 to 4.6% in 2021-22.
CDC officials said the pandemic disrupted vaccinations and made it harder for schools to track which students were behind on shots. But they also cited decreasing confidence in vaccines as another factor in the decreases.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in December found less support among parents for school vaccine requirements compared with a 2019 survey. CDC data shows chickenpox vaccination rates fell more sharply than the rate for shots for measles, mumps and rubella.