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Lawmakers may consider loosening all K-12 vaccine requirements at special session

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First Day

Orin Smith, the ESP teacher at Park Elementary School, works as a crossing guard on Sept. 1 on Center Street in downtown Casper. 

Multiple bills proposed for a three-day special legislative session this week would allow students and their parents to forgo legally mandated vaccines to attend public or private K-12 schools in Wyoming. One of them is backed by a joint committee.

State statute already allows parents to request religious or medical exemptions to any of the vaccines currently required to attend school in Wyoming. To request those exemptions, parents must provide evidence that the vaccines violate their religious beliefs or are contrary to advice from their student’s physicians.

The proposed legislation would add a third waiver category, allowing parents or legal guardians to request exemptions without any rationale beyond it being their personal choice.

“I do not feel like a personal exemption for the state required vaccines is a good idea,” said Regan Story, president of the Wyoming School Nurses Association.

Vaccines are important to keep illness down in and outside of school, she said, adding that it’s relatively rare that parents request religious or medical vaccination waivers.

Story said in a situation where a large number of students requested such exemptions, it would pose a greater risk to those students than anyone else in the building.

Under current law, if there is a disease outbreak within a school, unvaccinated students with medical and religious waivers would be asked to stay home until the outbreak was controlled. The procedure is written into state statute, but Story has never needed to act on it.

In 10 years of being a school nurse, she said there’s never been an outbreak of any of the illnesses students are required to be inoculated against. Story credits the required vaccines for preventing any would-be outbreaks.

If any proposal to lessen those vaccination requirements passed, she said it would be a concern.

“Personally as a school nurse, I think it would adversely affect attendance at schools,” she added.

One bill proposing such exemptions would limit vaccine requirements on employers as well as schools. That legislation is sponsored by the legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services committee.

Co-chair of that committee, Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, said in June when the panel advanced the bill that she did not think vaccine mandates were an issue in Wyoming, but “I think there’s a real advantage to the committee taking some action on this before it becomes a problem.”

Twelve of that committee’s 14 members voted to support that bill, with one member absent and one member opposing.

It is one of only two bills proposed for this special session with formal committee backing. The other, sponsored by the Joint Revenue Committee, would expand Medicaid in the state.

Another bill, dubbed the Grace Smith Medical Freedom Act, would also require health officers to provide waivers for mask requirements.

That legislation is named for a Laramie High School student who refused to comply with that district’s mask policy and so was suspended from school and later arrested for trespassing by school resource officers after officials asked her to leave campus.

She was released to her parents shortly after being taken into custody by the Laramie Police Department, according to her father, Andy Smith.

Her namesake legislation removes the need for students to submit evidence of a medical or religious objection to the required vaccines, and more forcefully requires health officers to grant exemptions based on personal choice.

It also requires the exemptions be granted within seven days of a written request being received.

That legislation is sponsored by Rep. Ocean Andrew, R-Laramie, who did not respond to a request for comment by press time Monday.

Students in any public or private Wyoming school are required to be vaccinated for 12 different illnesses.

A “DTaP” or “Tdap” shot protects against three of them: diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. An “MMR” shot protects against another three: measles, mumps and rubella. The remaining six illnesses each require their own shots, which protect against hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type B, polio, Streptococcus pneumoniae (requiring a pneumococcal vaccine,) rotavirus and varicella. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends most of these shots be given as an infant.

Each of these illnesses can be debilitating for children and adults. Their symptoms include everything from heart failure to brain damage, and in severe cases, death.

Lawmakers on Tuesday will vote on rules determining the scope of what can be considered during this special, three-day session.

It’s unclear how many of the proposed bills will have the opportunity to be debated until those rules are set.

Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes


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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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