Anti-vaccine and pro-vaccine advocates packed a committee room Monday for a daylong public hearing on a series of bills that would roll back Maine’s 2019 school vaccine law.

The law, which went into effect for the 2021-22 school year, eliminated the ability to opt out of school-required vaccines for religious or philosophical reasons. Vaccines mandated for school attendance protect students from illnesses such as measles, mumps, pertussis and polio.

The proposed bills, sponsored mostly by Republicans, would reintroduce religious and philosophic exemptions for school vaccines. The hours of sometimes emotional testimony at the hearing made it clear that the intensity of opposition to the mandate has not subsided.

Public health advocates argued that the law is working and has broad support. Maine voters overwhelmingly voted to retain the law 73% to 27% in a March 2020 referendum. And with Democratic majorities in the Maine House and Senate, and Gov. Janet Mills supportive of the existing law, the bills have little chance of passing.

Before the law took effect, Maine had one of the highest rates in the nation for parents forgoing vaccinations for school-aged children. Some diseases – such as measles – are so contagious that even if 5% or more opt out, the community can be at risk for outbreaks.

When philosophical and religious opt-outs were permitted, some Maine schools reported kindergarten opt-out rates of 20%, 30% or higher, leaving those schools and communities at greater risk of outbreaks.


Maine’s statewide opt-out rates plummeted from a high of about 6% of students entering kindergarten in 2019-20 – including non-medical and medical exemptions – to 1.8% for the 2021-22 school year, when the law was implemented. Exemptions are still allowed for medical reasons. Data for the current school year is not yet available. The national average for opt-outs is about 2%.

Jessica Shiminski, who directs the Maine Immunization Program for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, testified that the new law has had many benefits, including contributing to the reduction in pertussis rates.

“Not only did high exemption rates likely contribute to higher rates of pertussis, or whooping cough, in (Hancock and Waldo) counties, but also for the entire state, with Maine reporting the highest rate of pertussis in the country for 2018,” Shiminski said. “More recently, states across the country are facing outbreaks of both polio and measles. These vaccines are all required for kindergarten entry in Maine’s public and private schools. Reinstating allowances for exemptions for non-medical reasons would threaten the public health of Mainers. When someone chooses not to vaccinate, that decision can jeopardize the health and safety of entire communities.”

Anti-vaccine advocates on Monday repeated misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines – including claims that they are dangerous, ineffective and linked to autism – which have been debunked numerous times by research and public health experts. Despite the hearing not being about the COVID-19 vaccine, which has proven to be safe and effective, saving millions of lives worldwide, anti-vaccine activists also espoused numerous myths about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Evidence shows that states that have more restrictive exemption laws have higher immunization rates and less disease transmission,” Shiminski said.

In addition to Maine, California, New York and Connecticut have forbidden non-medical opt-outs in recent years, and West Virginia and Mississippi have long-standing laws against non-medical opt-outs. Both California and New York approved the more restrictive school vaccine laws partly in response to measles outbreaks.


Some proponents of the bill – including its sponsor, Rep. Gary Drinkwater, R-Milford – argued that it’s unfair to exclude students from school when parents do not choose to vaccinate their children.

Martha Bell, of Houlton, said that her two children no longer attend RSU 29 because of the new law, and her children are being discriminated against.


“Our children were forced to leave the most interpersonal and only academic environment they had ever known,” Bell said. “This has negatively impacted their social and emotional well-being. While we have put in great effort to keep them engaged, most of their interaction is now through electronic devices. As a result, their relationships have deteriorated over time. It is my hope that you will take into consideration the well-being of the children being removed from classrooms.”

Nick Murray, director of policy for the right-leaning Maine Policy Institute, said the immunization laws “unfairly singled out a class of parents
who simply exercised their right of conscience to raise their children the way they prefer. Is Maine a state that tells parents, ‘Our way or the highway?'”

Marcus Mrowka, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the state does not compile data on families that choose to not enroll their children in school based on the vaccine laws. But the state does collect data on the number of students who unenroll due to not complying with vaccine requirements.


“As of February that number was 37 students for the current school year,” Mrowka said.

Lewiston schools are delaying enforcement of the vaccine mandate for 120 students who have yet to meet the requirements, in part because many are new Mainers who have had difficulty getting access to appointments, the Sun Journal reported in February. But school officials say that eventually, the students will need to get their vaccinations to continue being in school.

Other parents and medical professionals testified in support of pro-vaccine families who have immune-compromised children who for safety reasons can’t attend school if there are too many unvaccinated children in their school.

Dr. Gabriela DeOliveira, a South Portland pediatrician, said “every child in Maine deserves to live in a community where they are safe – especially from preventable diseases that may have horrifying consequences, such as irreversible disability or even death.”

The Christian Civic League testified in support of the bills to reinstate religious and philosophic exemptions. The Maine Council of Churches and the Episcopal Diocese of Maine opposed the bills. Pediatricians, school nurses, school administrators and the Maine Education Association teachers’ union also opposed the measures.

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