Back in the ancient times of early summer 2020, we noticed a huge uptick in anti-COVID-19 vaccine sentiment online, even though these vaccines were just barely starting clinical trials. And because the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna used new technology, mRNAs, it led to fear and loathing of these vaccines.
I remarked to a friend of mine that if the anti-COVID-19 vaccine forces gained traction, it was going to cause trouble for other vaccines because the goal of the anti-vaccine world wasn't to block mandates and requirements for just the COVID-19 vaccines, they want to stop all vaccinations.
Unless you believe in unicorns and wizards, it is crystal clear to me, and many others. Orac recently wrote:
Ever since the anti-vaccine movement rose to previously unattained prominence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, resistance to COVID-19 vaccine mandates (not to mention to all public health mandates to slow the spread of the coronavirus, such as masks and “lockdowns”), and the increasing affinity between anti-vaxxers and fascists, those of us who have been following the anti-vaccine movement have become increasingly concerned that anti-COVID-19 vaccination has been metastasizing to cover all vaccines. Unsurprisingly, it’s been doing exactly that. The endgame of the anti-vaccine movement has always been the elimination of all vaccine mandates of any kind, and increasingly right wing politicians are pushing for laws and policies that bring us closer to such a world.
And guess what? It appears that all of our fears have come to pass.
Anti-vaccine legislation thanks to COVID-19
As of June 1, 2022, there are 223 bills and legislation in the USA, according to the Network for Public Law, that involves vaccines. Among the things that these bills are trying to accomplish are:
- prohibit state agencies and agents of the state from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination status
- prohibit an employer from requiring that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a pre-condition to employment
- prohibit schools from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for school attendance and activities
- prohibit the state's public health authorities from recognizing certain Federal vaccine mandates — this is the most problematic since they could include CDC recommendations for childhood vaccinations.
Here is a sample of laws that have been introduced (those that are enacted as law are in bold) that are may lead to the anti-vaxxer's goal of ending all vaccination:
- Arizona HCR 2003 - provides that the freedom to choose not to be vaccinated is an inherent right of all individuals.
- Arizona HB 2022 - removes the authority of the governor and health department to mandate treatment or vaccination during a state of emergency caused by a pandemic or endemic disease.
- Arizona HB 2619 - requires that the state department of health services post a link on its website containing publicly available information about the vaccine adverse event reporting system.
Georgia SB 345 - prohibits state and local agencies, including school districts from requiring proof of vaccination.
- Georgia HB 856 - prohibits state or local governments from requiring: individuals to submit to vaccinations as a condition for certain actions; issuing immunization passports to certify the immunization status of an individual; prohibits face masks or other facial coverings mandates to minimize the spread of contagious or infectious diseases; prohibits certain entities or individuals doing business in this state from requiring patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying vaccination or to wear a mask or other facial covering to gain entry to a business or to receive goods or services.
- Illinois HB 4149 - provides that no State or local entity, agency, institution, official, or person shall require a minor to obtain a health care service or take a health-related precaution; provides that no State or local entity, agency, institution, official, or person shall discriminate against a minor because the child has or has not obtained a health care service or has or has not taken any health-related precaution; provides that no public institution of higher education shall require any health care service or health-related precaution to be taken as a condition on enrollment or in-person classroom attendance.
- Illinois HB 4471 - provides that, to the extent feasible without materially endangering the public's health, the Department of Public Health shall respect and accommodate the religious beliefs, right of conscience, right of bodily integrity, and reasoned differences of medical opinions based upon the advice of medical practitioners or scientific data and reasoning of individuals in implementing provisions; provides that the Department, considering these factors, may order the administration of vaccines, medications, or other treatments to persons as necessary to prevent the probable spread of a dangerously contagious or infectious disease.
- Indiana SB 114 - provides that certain acts by a person or a government entity concerning an individual's vaccination status or whether an individual has an immunity passport are against public policy; provides that the department of labor may investigate and issue administrative orders for violations or threatened violations; establishes a separate private right of action for violations or threatened violations.
- Iowa HSB 647 - no entity shall require an immunity passport of any person or inquire into the medical treatment status of any person. No entity may require a mask or testing based on a person’s medical treatment status or immunity passport. An immunity passport is a document indicating that a person has been vaccinated or has gained natural immunity through infection and recovery.
- Louisiana HB 47 - requires that any communication issued to students or parents relative to immunization requirements include exemption information and an exemption form.
- Louisiana HB 48 - prohibits the administration of vaccines on school property and at school-sponsored events.
- Louisiana HB 53 - provides for autonomy in making personal health care decisions, including vaccinations.
- Louisiana HB 990 - prohibits vaccine mandates.
- Maryland HB 779 - provides that, when a public or private entity requires vaccination against a virus to receive services, it must also accept a written statement from a patron that claims they have already been infected with that virus and are no longer contagious; requires the entity to serve someone who makes such a statement and prohibits a demand proof of prior infection.
- Michigan HB 4008 - limits public health authority to compel testing, treatment, or examination of an individual who objects on personal religious grounds; prohibits compelled testing, treatment, or examination of a minor based on a parent’s religious objection; prohibits immunization if the individual or their parent objects on religious or other grounds or if a physician certifies it is or may be detrimental to the individual's health or inappropriate.
- Minnesota HF 3517 - state funding prohibited for public and private entities enforcing vaccine mandate or vaccine passport.
- New Jersey S 811 - modifies the state Tort Claims Act to make the state strictly liable for injuries caused by state-mandated vaccines.
- New York S 5157 and A 7042 - establishes strict liability against the state for injuries caused by the administration of a state-mandated immunization.
- Ohio HB 477 - prohibits employers, public schools, and public and private colleges from requiring employees or students to receive a vaccine that uses mRNA, DNA, or any other genetic vaccine technology or the vaccine has not been issued a biologics license or otherwise received full approval by the FDA. Prevents termination of employment or expulsion from school for those who do not receive a vaccination.
- Ohio HB 489 - provides that students and employees have the right to object to certain vaccines and other treatments based on reasons of conscience, including religious convictions.
- Oklahoma SB 658 - prohibits medical device mandates (including masks) in public schools and technology center school districts, without a declared state of emergency and consultation with the county health board; prohibits educational institutions from requiring vaccination, vaccine passports, and mask mandates for unvaccinated students.
- Oklahoma HB 3241 - prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status and provides exemptions for individuals to decline to be vaccinated based on medical or religious grounds.
- Oklahoma HB 3245 - prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status and provides exemptions for individuals to decline to be vaccinated based on medical or religious grounds.
- Pennsylvania HB 1439 - prohibits the Governor, Department of Health, a state agency, board or commission, county executive, or a governing body of a municipality from adopting or enforcing state law, ordinance, regulation, rule, or order that mandates: vaccination at any time; isolation or quarantine based solely or primarily on the individual’s vaccination status at any time; requiring vaccination as a condition of receiving government benefits, services, licenses or permits, access to a public building or public transportation; providing any special privilege, financial benefit or another incentive to an individual receiving vaccination.
- Rhode Island HB 7121 - prohibits discrimination against graduate students who have a religious or medical exemption from vaccination to participate in an experiential learning placement, like internships.
- South Carolina H 4555 (Similar to S0900) - prohibits certain governmental infringement on the fundamental rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children except in limited circumstances; provides that parents can exempt their children from immunizations for school attendance; increases the age of consent to 18 for certain health care services.
- South Carolina H 3511 - prohibits discrimination against individuals who exercise their right not to be vaccinated; allows individuals to opt-out of vaccinations.
- Tennessee HB 2452 / SB 2151 - prohibits certain actions taken by a person, public officer, public employee, governmental entity, employer, or place of public accommodation against an individual based on the individual’s vaccination status, immunity status, or whether the person has an immunity passport.
- Vermont H 283 - recognizes the right to bodily integrity and prohibits discrimination or harm based on an individual’s decision on bodily integrity, including whether to be vaccinated, receive medical treatment, or be subject to medical testing; applies to employment, education, chic care, insurance, religion, public benefits, and sports/camps.
- Vermont H 322 - provides for a conscientious or personal belief exception from all vaccination requirements for school or childcare entry.
Virginia HB 4012 - prohibits a state or local government official or entity, hospital, or state institution of higher education, from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of entering the premises.
- Virginia HB 2728 - prohibits commissioners from expanding compulsory immunizations for school students unless explicitly authorized by the legislature.
- Virginia HB 3197 - provides for religious, conscientious, or personal exemption to all vaccination for a government agency and board employees, and school attendance, including higher education.
The anti-COVID-19 vaccine requirements have bled over into more general anti-vaccine legislation. Of course, not all of these will pass through the state legislatures and get signed into law, but it is clear that it is an effort by anti-vaxxers to use anti-COVID vaccine sentiment to either block mandates for all other vaccines or to allow more exemptions to the childhood vaccines.
Anti-COVID-19 vaccine and politics
If you read through the list of all anti-vaccine legislation (most of them are specifically anti-COVID-19 vaccine), you will notice that the vast majority of them are in what we call "red states," that is, those states that are run by Republicans at the executive and legislative levels. That's not a surprise for any of us.
It is clear that the anti-vaccine movement (in general, not just the anti-COVID vaccine) has been embraced by the right-wing. Back in the dark days, when Donald Trump was elected president, but before he took office, Robert F Kennedy Jr (not a liberal anymore) met with Trump to try to create a "Vaccine Truth Commission" or some such nonsense. Trump was probably one of the first anti-vaccine presidents we've ever had (and despite his efforts to quickly get a COVID-19 vaccine).
But it's more than just the disgraced anti-vaccine President among Republicans. Almost all of the anti-vaccine legislation that the Network for Public Law is following are introduced by Republicans mainly in Republican-dominated legislatures.
I noticed that the anti-vaccine message was gathering steam among those on the right when California passed SB277 and SB276, which ended all non-medical exemptions. There were large protests and attacks on legislators, such as Senator Richard Pan, that seem to coalesce the libertarians and right-wingers who saw blocking vaccine mandates as a winning issue.
Orac gives us a good summary of what was going on:
This message first really started resonating in 2015 in response to the drive to pass SB 277, the California law that banned nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. That was when anti-vaxxers pivoted from messaging that was primarily about “toxins” in vaccines and the false claim that vaccines caused autism, autoimmune disorders, sterility, and death to messaging that primarily emphasized “vaccine choice,” “freedom,” “parental rights,” and resistance to government mandates.
It was a winning message that rapidly started metastasizing to attract those of a conservative/libertarian bent, and many of the groups formed in the wake of that political struggle were clearly conservative, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, Empower Texans, Michigan for Vaccine Choice, and others. By 2018, I was personally observing this rightward shift and infiltration of conservatism, including the Republican Party, in my neck of the woods, when a candidate for the Republican nomination for my district’s Congressional seat held an anti-vaccine “vaccine choice roundtable” that I attended incognito and documented, and openly anti-vax candidates were running for state governor and other offices.
By 2019, Republicans in Oregon were openly opposing anything resembling tightening school vaccine mandates, and the Ohio Statehouse was rife with antivax legislators, to the point that anti-vaxxers were bragging about them. Also, to bring it around, anti-vaxxers in California were openly marching with the California State Militia, specifically the California State Militia, First Regiment, California Valley Patriots and the State of Jefferson.
Despite dozens of lawsuits and protests, nothing has changed. California still has one of the strictest school vaccine mandates.
Parents become radicalized
It's not just those of us who focus on vaccines who have noticed what's going on, our fear that the anti-COVID-19 vaccine rhetoric will affect all childhood vaccines.
A New York Times article by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, "The Anti-Vaccine Movement’s New Frontier," examined the radicalization of parents against all childhood vaccines. Years ago, when I started this blog, I thought the hardest thing I had to do was to dissuade parents from the notion that vaccines caused autism.
Today, we have to deal with new conspiracies and new messaging from anti-vaxxers which is frustrating because no amount of science can debunk these claims. It's like someone asking me to prove that there are no purple unicorns on Mars.
Now the pandemic has given anti-vaccine advocates an opportunity to field-test a variety of messages and find new recruits. And one message in particular seems to be resonating widely: Vaccines and vaccine mandates are an attack on freedom.
It's not science anymore — it's a political point. Years ago, I used to write about evolution denial in schools, mostly in the South, and it was frustrating because legislators were denying all aspects of science to push in religious teaching and push out science teaching. The same is going on here — vaccine mandates ARE an attack on personal freedom for these anti-vaccine lunatics. And they are using it to get more and more like-minded people to join them.
What's the end game?
And this is where it's getting scary. We are going to see numerous diseases, which we thought were long gone, start coming back. It does not take much of a drop in vaccination rates for us to drop below the herd effect level — that level of vaccination where immune individuals protect the population as a whole by stopping the transmission of an infectious disease.
Measles, mumps, and whooping cough have occasionally made returns in the USA and many other areas because vaccination rates have dropped. A measles outbreak in Disneyland a few years ago prompted California to get tougher on school vaccine mandates.
Ten years ago, I thought anti-vaxxers were just dangerous to their children. We were invested in changing their minds because we wanted to protect children. Now, these anti-vaxxers appear to want to end vaccines period — if they do that, it will bring epidemics and pandemics that will make COVID-19 seem to be nothing.
Millions of children could get measles, for example, if we ended all vaccinations for it. And now quackery or pseudoscience is going to protect some children from that killer disease — there will be thousands of dead children and hospitals filled with sick children.
I live in a state, California, which is about as pro-vaccine as any in the country, yet, as Velasquez-Manoff states:
Eric Ball, a pediatrician in Orange County, Calif., said the number of children in his practice who were fully vaccinated had declined by 5 percent, compared with before the pandemic. He has been hearing more questions about established childhood vaccines — How long has it been around? Why give it? — from parents who vaccinated older children without much hesitation but are now confronted with the prospect of vaccinating babies born during the pandemic. Some of these parents end up holding off, he says, telling him they want to do more research. “There’s a lot of misinformation about the Covid vaccines, and it just bleeds into everything,” he says. “These fake stories and bad information get stuck in people’s heads, and they understandably get confused.”
Like other cultural issues, such as guns and abortion, the right-wing minority is winning this game of vaccines with incompetent judges and sympathetic politicians. It's kind of ironic that the right-wing says abortion is all about saving children, yet they want to end vaccines and allow guns that will kill children. They don't give a crap about children.