Republicans, state health officials clash over new student vaccine requirements

NOW: Republicans, state health officials clash over new student vaccine requirements

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Republicans and state health officials clashed over a new policy put forth requiring students be vaccinated against meningitis and having to show proof of a prior chickenpox infection to avoid a vaccine.

The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules held a public hearing Tuesday about the state Department of Health Services' updated vaccine policy released last month. The changes include updated requirements related to meningitis and whooping cough immunizations, and that past chickenpox infection must be documented by a qualified medical professional.

The committee's co-chair, Senator Steve Nass, indicated he will hold a vote soon to block aspects of the requirements, calling them "arbitrary and capricious."

This is the second time DHS has tried to require students entering the 7th grade to be vaccinated against meningitis, and for incoming high school seniors to get a booster shot. In 2020, the committee voted to suspend similar requirements implemented by DHS.

For years, the agency has suggested students get the meningitis vaccine, but DHS said federal health officials have recommended it since 2005 to protect against communicable disease.

"By reducing the number of people with symptomatic disease, we decrease the number of bacteria and viruses that are circulating in the air and surfaces -- that keeps everyone safer than they would be if we didn't vaccinate," said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the chief medical officer and state epidemiologist at the Department of Health Services when testifying to lawmakers.

The move comes as vaccine requirements have become a center of debate, with some Republicans arguing mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic infringed on their freedoms. Nass asked DHS officials how people can trust their guidance after implementing COVID-19 policies some disagreed with.

"When I look back, there was an urging of everybody to mask up, shut down, don't go anywhere, and my gut was telling me this is not right," Nass said. “How do we trust you? ...I'll be honest with you; I refer to you as Wisconsin’s Dr. Fauci."

Democrats called the public hearing a political overreach and an attempt to criticize state health officials.

"This is what they are doing with this power," Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said. "It's going to hurt people."

Representative Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee), the committee's co-chair, called the policy an unnecessary burden. He also questioned the effectiveness when parents can already exempt their child from vaccine mandates.

Under the policies set by DHS, parents can fill out a waiver to exempt their child from vaccines for medical, religious or philosophical reasons.

The agency also updated their chickenpox policy. Parents who don't want to vaccinate their child must show proof of a prior chickenpox infection from a medical provider, under the DHS rule.

DHS officials argued they want documentation instead of just a parent's word.

"We're trying to make sure every child, every parent is aware of the recommendation and has a chance to talk to their health care provider and then make a decision," said Dr. Stephanie Schauer, immunization program manager at DHS.

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