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Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news conference at Denver Health medical center on April 4, 2019, to reissue his health care roadmap from the campaign. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

An outcry from parents and opposition from Gov. Jared Polis are leading a Colorado lawmaker to abandon his effort to eliminate the state’s personal-belief exemption for required vaccinations.

The legislation from State Rep. Kyle Mullica introduced Thursday makes it more difficult for parents to receive a religious or personal-belief exemption from immunizations required to enroll their children in school, but it preserves both in law.

The new approach is designed to address Colorado’s lowest-in-the-nation immunization rate and comes after warnings from public health officials about measles and mumps outbreaks in the state and across the nation.

Under the measure, parents who claim a religious or personal-belief exemption would be required to complete a standardized form and get it certified by a state or local public health agency. Parents would then file the certification with the school. Right now, a standardized form and public health approval is not required.

For a medical exemption, parents would need to get a certified form from a physician, physician assistant or advanced registered nurse, but not a signature from a public health agency.

The new rules would take effect for the 2020 school year and the state would have to develop materials touting the benefits of immunizations and distribute them to health care providers by Jan. 1.

“The goal is to obviously improve our vaccination rates,” said Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat and emergency room nurse.

“I think we were looking at a really aggressive option in the beginning,” he added. “At the end of the day, the experts I visited with believe this option could potentially work without having to be so aggressive.”

In Colorado, less than 89 percent of the state’s kindergarten-aged children have received the vaccines needed to prevent illnesses such as measles and mumps, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate is below the national median and the 95 percent threshold needed to prevent an outbreak.

The state’s policy for vaccine exemptions currently is classified as the easiest in the country, said Dr. Sean O’Leary, an associate professor in pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who consulted on the legislation.

If the new rules are approved, he believes the state’s policy would become difficult, which he supports. “We know the more difficult the process, the lower the rate of exemptions, the higher the rates of vaccinations,” O’Leary said. “So I do think it could help.”

But he cautioned that Washington state tightened its exemption process in recent years only to see an outbreak that led to an emergency declaration.

To get a better handle on the state’s rate, the legislation would require better tracking of exemptions as well as an annual report to lawmakers.

Polis, the first-term Democratic governor, emerged as one of the most prominent critics of Mullica’s original proposal to abolish the personal-belief exemption, telling The Colorado Sun in February that the state shouldn’t mandate the practice on parents.

It’s not clear if Polis supports the new legislation, but now he’s shifting his approach. Earlier this week, Polis said his administration is elevating the issue to improve outreach and education.

“We are looking to improve the immunization rate by sharing evidence-based practices with Coloradans to inform better decision making,” Polis said.

O’Leary said Polis’ stance that parents simply need education on vaccines “is somewhat naive.”

“If parents aren’t going to listen to a pediatrician … is it really appropriate to just provide more education because that’s going to make a difference?” O’Leary asked. “These parents that are choosing not to vaccinate, it’s more of an emotional decision than a scientific one.”

Amy Peavey, a former health care professional who lives in Boulder, vaccinated her children until her youngest child had a negative reaction. She said she agrees with Polis that the current system is working and objects to a required standardized form.

“I think that’s a terrible idea,” Peavy said of the proposed new system. “When you are forcing us to sign that form, that is compelled speech.”

In terms of education, she said parents concerned about vaccines would love to have more education but that it should include the potential harms and the limited legal liability for pharmaceutical companies. “We need to talk about all sides,” she said.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.