California lawmakers retreat from vaccine fight

In recent weeks, lawmakers have shelved a proposed private employer mandate and a bill to eliminate personal belief exemptions at schools for Covid shots. Another contentious measure — to let children 12 and over get vaccinated without a parent’s consent — is yet to be scheduled for a hearing despite looming deadlines to advance bills this session.

And Gov. Gavin Newsom, the first governor to announce a public school vaccine mandate, this month pushed back the much-hyped order to 2023, citing the slow-moving FDA approval process for younger children.

Until recently, the Golden State looked ready to reprise its role as vaccine champion and enforcer. Last summer, Newsom made California the first state to order health care workers, teachers and school staff to get Covid shots. He later announced a mandate for K-12 students. And in January, as Omicron-driven cases exploded, lawmakers unveiled the most ambitious vaccine legislation in the nation.

But instead of inspiring a wave of similar policies across the country, as some advocates had hoped, California’s vaccine agenda has begun to fall apart.

“The conversation has shifted,” said Hemi Tewarson, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, “and there doesn’t seem to be, across the country, a big push to require the Covid vaccine.”

In California and elsewhere, a relative lull in cases pushed the pandemic further into the background, behind issues of public safety, homelessness and the economy, creating stronger headwinds for vaccination mandates. Bills in New York and New Hampshire to require school-age children to be vaccinated have also failed to advance.

Lawmakers and staff in Sacramento were reluctant to speak publicly about the legislation’s fate, given its political sensitivities. But three legislative staff members said their bosses’ priorities had shifted elsewhere. One staffer described the demise of the proposed student mandate as a “relief” to the Democratic caucus, while others noted an overwhelming number of calls in opposition to the bill.

One Democratic lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said he generally supported vaccine legislation but questioned the value of debating bills, such as the student mandate, that wouldn’t take effect until at least next year.

“How is that going to do anything constructive in the short term?” he asked.

Many powerful business and labor groups worked against the proposed workplace requirement. But no single mandate faced a more ferocious backlash than the student vaccine proposal, which many considered a nonstarter without full federal regulatory approval for all student age groups.

The stubbornly low vaccination rate among kids — just over a third of California children age 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated — underscores the hesitation of many parents. Some say they won’t immunize their children before the shots receive full federal approval.

The slow uptake also raised the prospect of barring large numbers of students from in-person learning if their families didn’t comply — an “extremely undesirable outcome,” said Troy Flint, a spokesperson for the California School Boards Association.

Even before Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) shelved his school vaccination bill, some districts were vowing to defy it.

One reason it is politically harder to mandate Covid shots, compared to other vaccines, is the level of protection it offers against the virus. The Covid vaccine, by its nature, is less effective in preventing infection than required immunizations against such diseases as polio and measles, and the emergence of new variants make it more like the flu vaccine, which isn’t required and needs to be given annually.

“This isn’t a fringe issue — anymore — of the extreme right,” said Kevin Gordon, a longtime lobbyist for California school districts. “Lots of parents and lots of communities that hung in there for a fairly vigorous approach to mitigating the virus have simply become exhausted with all the interventions.”

Pan, a physician whose 2019 legislation empowered the state to crack down on doctors who issue questionable medical exemptions, has been a particular target of vaccine protestors over the years. One shoved him from behind in a live-streamed assault near the Capitol that year in a clip that was posted on social media. He has also received death threats.

Echoes of California’s earlier vaccine strife reverberated in the halls of the Capitol last week as members of The People’s Convoy, Freedom Angels and religious groups converged in Sacramento for what turned out to be a mashup of anti-vaccine and anti-abortion opposition to bills on Covid and reproductive rights.

Public debate last Tuesday over a bill that would make doctors subject to disciplinary action if they spread Covid misinformation to patients turned ugly. Chair Marc Berman cursed at a member of the audience who made a threat that “anyone who supports this bill will be held accountable.” That bill passed the committee.

Crystal Strait, who founded the vaccine advocacy group ProtectUS and worked with lawmakers on many of the vaccine bills, noted that some of the legislation is still pending, including a proposal from Pan to improve the state’s viral surveillance program and legislation to require schools to have a Covid-testing plan in place. The Covid testing bill, which has garnered a lot of opposition, is slated to be heard in committee this week.

But some say the moment may have already passed. “The enthusiasm for these bills rises and falls according to how people are experiencing Covid at a certain moment in time,” Flint said. “Earlier in the year when a lot of this legislation was proposed, we were in the midst of a pretty significant surge. Now, for some people, that may feel a little distant.”

Susannah Luthi contributed to this report.

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