SACRAMENTO — In January, progressive California Democrats vowed to introduce the country’s toughest Covid vaccine requirements. Their proposals would have required most Californians to get the shots to go to school or work — with no exceptions coming out of them.
Months later, lawmakers withdrew their bills ahead of the first votes.
A major vaccine proposal survives but faces an uphill battle. It would allow children aged 12 to 17 to receive a Covid-19 vaccine without parental permission. At least 10 other states allow some minors to do so.
Democrats blamed the failure of their vaccination mandates on the changing nature and perception of the pandemic. They said the measures have become unnecessary as case numbers fell earlier this year and the public became less focused on the pandemic. Also, they argued, the state doesn’t vaccinate enough children, so mandatory vaccination would shut too many children out of school.
Political pressure from corporations and public safety groups, as well as moderate Democrats — along with vocal opposition from anti-vaccination groups — also contributed.
Now, even if case numbers are rising again, the window for accepting COVID vaccine mandates may have closed, said Hemi Tewarson, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy. “Given the concerns about mandates and all the backlash that states have received in this regard, they are reluctant to really move forward,” Tewarson said. “Federal mandates have stalled in court. And laws just don’t get made.”
Other states have also largely failed to adopt Covid vaccine requirements this year. Washington, DC was the only jurisdiction to pass legislation to add the Covid vaccine to the list of required immunizations for K-12 students once immunizations receive full federal approval for children that age. A public school mandate adopted by Louisiana in December 2021 was rescinded in May.
The most popular vaccination legislation has been to ban Covid vaccination requirements of any kind, which has been the case in at least 19 states, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
In California, the landscape has changed radically in just a few months. In January, a group of progressive Democrats introduced eight bills to make vaccinations mandatory, combat misinformation and improve vaccination data. Two were sweeping mandates that would have required staff at most indoor businesses to be vaccinated and added Covid vaccines to the list of vaccinations required for schools.
“It’s important that we continue to push for vaccination mandates as aggressively as possible,” State Assembly Member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) told KHN in early 2022. She was the author of the Workplace Mandate Bill.
But legislation imploded almost immediately.
In March, Wick’s proposal for a worker vaccination mandate died. It was strongly opposed by fire and police unions, whose membership would have been conditional on the requirement.
“I don’t think pro-vaccination people in Sacramento carry much weight with my peers,” Wicks said. “They’re a pretty insignificant part of the equation.” Public safety unions “are the ones that carry the weight and influence in Sacramento,” she said.
California Professional Firefighters and other public safety groups wrote against the bill arguing that mandates would affect their ability to negotiate employment requirements with their employers. “To summarily overturn these negotiated guidelines with a blanket mandate sets a dangerous and demoralizing precedent,” wrote the group, which represents 30,000 firefighters.
Schools should also be subject to a strict vaccination mandate.
In October 2021, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California would become the first state to require vaccinations for schoolchildren, beginning in July 2022. That deadline has since been pushed back to at least July 2023.
And Newsom’s order included a loophole that allows parents to reject their children by claiming a “personal beliefs” exemption.
In January, as California was routinely recording more than 100,000 new cases a day, lawmakers introduced legislation to ban personal belief exemptions for Covid vaccines — which are not allowed for other required childhood vaccines.
Again, they soon backed down, saying childhood immunization coverage was so low that shots should not be needed until they are widely available in pediatric surgeries.
According to the California Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 60% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, while only 35% of children ages 5 to 11 have received their first two shots. Booster vaccinations for children were approved in mid-May.
Rather than implementing mandates, the state should focus on educating and reaching out to parents, said Assemblyman Akilah Weber (D-San Diego), an OB-GYN who was among the lawmakers who introduced the package of vaccine laws. “It’s hard to argue that we need to issue mandates at the moment when you have a good number of people who feel like we’re through with the pandemic,” she said.
Lawmakers could revive mandate bills, she said, if hospitals and healthcare workers find themselves overwhelmed again.
Cases are increasing nationwide. The rate of positive Covid tests has been at 7% in recent days, the highest since February – and likely an undercount due to people testing at home and not reporting results.
Weber’s suggestion that parents be more involved helps explain why the legislation failed, said Robin Swanson, a Sacramento-based Democratic policy adviser. State and local officials have never communicated clearly with the public about vaccinating children, she said, and have not effectively reached out to vulnerable populations to begin with. “You can’t build a mandate on distrust,” Swanson said.
Public relations and public information are vital, said Dr. John Swartzberg, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Infectious Diseases and Vaccines at the UC-Berkeley School of Public Health. But if these were paired with a mandate, he said, the state could vaccinate and protect many more children. “It works pretty well in companies that mandate vaccines,” Swartzberg said. “And it works very well in schools in particular.”
Vaccine activists, who vowed to have a larger presence at the Capitol this year, also thought mandates would dramatically increase immunization rates. But as reality set in, they shifted their focus to increasing funding for vaccinations and pushing surviving bills across the finish line.
“Yes, we need immunization requirements, and yes, they work,” said Crystal Strait, who runs the immunization organization ProtectUS. However, she acknowledged that the situation has changed since January and said her group needs to change with it: “We cannot be as simple as just compulsory vaccination.”
Newsom’s latest budget proposal includes $230 million for vaccine distribution and $135 million for vaccine distribution and administration.
Strait’s group plans to combat misinformation about vaccines among the public and cautious lawmakers, including those in the Democrat ranks. “There are people who say they’re pro-science and pro-public health, but when push comes to shove, they’re not there yet,” Strait said of the hesitant lawmakers.
In general, vaccination mandates are popular with the public. According to a March poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 57% of Californians supported requiring people to show proof of vaccination when going to large outdoor gatherings or entering some indoor venues like bars and restaurants.
But Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist who has worked on pro-vaccine lobbying with Strait, likened vaccine beliefs to climate change: Voters say they care, but other, more tangible issues like gas prices and reproductive rights are becoming more and more urgent to you.
“If things were as bad now as they were in January and February, there would be more concern and action,” said Catherine Flores-Martin, executive director of immunizations for the California Immunization Coalition.
“I’m disappointed that people aren’t thinking long-term.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a donated non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
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