There were few mysteries during the California Legislature’s just-concluded main session of 2019. With majorities topping two-thirds in both the Assembly and state Senate, the lawmakers fulfilled most of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign promises from last year.
There was action on housing, even if it likely won’t make much of a dent in homelessness or the affordability crisis. Preschool education got a boost and the outreach of government health insurance has been expanded. Plus a big move to undermine the gig working economy. And much more.
But there was one real mystery: Why did Newsom insist not just once, but twice within three months, on watering down SB 276, the effort by the Legislature’s only doctor to close loopholes allowing some children to avoid vaccinations required for public school enrollment? Is the governor a closet anti-vaxxer, even though he insists that all four of his children have been inoculated with no problems? Or did he just want to simplify the measure?
The bill eventually signed by Newsom was exponentially weaker than the original version proposed by Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, who is vilified regularly by anti-vaccination activists and was even physically assaulted by one on a street in his district. Back in 2015, Pan wrote the bill that ended the religious exemption from vaccination requirements, leaving medical waivers the only way parents can keep from vaccinating their kids and still enroll them in schools. Ex-Gov. Jerry Brown signed that one.
But medical waivers quickly became a major loophole, leading some public schools to have vaccination rates well below the 95 percent experts say is needed to prevent the occasional epidemic of sometimes fatal diseases like measles, rubella, pertussis and polio. That may be one reason California has experienced several significant outbreaks in recent years, including 40 cases of measles last spring, while national caseloads of diseases that were once thought extinct have reached levels unseen in decades.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents sought out the very few doctors who believe the unproven calumny that vaccinations can cause autism and other serious reactions. Most such doctors charged about $300 to sign a medical exemption, some allegedly without even seeing the children involved. One doctor, for example, signed almost one-third of all medical exemptions in the 130,000-student San Diego Unified school district.
Pan sought to close that loophole by having the state health department vet all such waivers, okaying only those for children with organ transplants and a few other conditions.
Newsom bridled at that. In June, he said, “I don’t want…someone the governor appointed making a decision that is very personal.” That seemingly put vaccinations in the realm of personal choice rather than public health. But Pan revised his bill so the vetting process would apply only to doctors who sign more than five waivers in any year. That seemed to satisfy Newsom. So Pan’s bill – called a “no-brainer” by one major Republican political consultant, cruised though the Legislature.
Until late August, that is. Newsom suddenly weighed in again, and now the law has been further weakened to apply only to exemptions written after next Jan. 1. It also no longer requires doctors to certify under penalty of perjury that what they’re saying is accurate and it lets existing exemptions stand until children reach the next grade level where updated vaccinations are required.
That’s a huge softening of Pan’s original bill, all at Newsom’s insistence. Yet, two requests for the governor to explain his motives (submitted through press secretary Nathan Click) went unanswered. Newsom was questioned about it during a press conference, though, and still did not explain. He said only that he “felt that we needed to clarity some additional points…” and that “I’m proud I listened to both sides of this debate…”
Does this mean Newsom is devolving into a whimsical Donald Trump-like figure who equates fly-by-night shibboleths promoted on social media with proven medical science? Newsom won’t say, but did allow that it was a “novel thing” to be questioned about his motives.
Newsom surely doesn’t like being compared with Trump, and knows what he can do to prevent it in the future. In the meantime, his motives on vaccination remain a mystery.