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Polis doubles down on education, outreach in vaccination fight as Colorado rates continue to worsen

New statistics released Thursday show that Colorado's vaccination rates for kindergarteners have worsened for some key immunizations. Critics say Polis' efforts don't go far enough.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters about Colorado's 2019 legislative session on May 3, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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After the failure this year of a bill aimed at improving Colorado’s low vaccination rates, and with new statistics showing them getting even worse, Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed an executive order directing his administration to study why some parents are reluctant to immunize their children.

The order builds off the Democrat’s belief that in order to boost vaccination rates the state must focus on education rather than making it more difficult to opt out. It contains education and rural access components, and asks state health officials to examine how Colorado’s vaccination policies compare to best practices and to what other states have done.

“We believe that Colorado families should be making their own health care decisions,” he said before signing the bill at a branch of Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood. “At the same time, there are simple steps that we can take to increase the vaccination rate while honoring the ability of parents and families to make their own health care decisions.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters before signing an executive order on vaccinations Thursday, June 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis called his executive order a third option to “the government forcing people to get shots, which is counterproductive, and simply allowing these rates to go down.”

The order also sets in motion a plan to provide incentives to doctors who receive Medicaid money to offer vaccines and requires state health officials to report their progress in a year, and then every six months.

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Critics have argued that Polis’ approach doesn’t go far enough in preventing the outbreak of disease and that a legislative solution is needed. On Thursday, some said that while the executive order is a good step, a real solution would come through legislation.

Dr. Reginald Washington, the chief medical officer for the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, said he favors a legislative fix, but that the order is better than nothing.

“I think there’s a large segment of the population that will be affected by this executive order,” Washington said in an interview after the order was signed. “Is it enough? In my opinion, I don’t think so. But it’s a first step.”

The measure that failed during the 2019 legislative session would have made it more difficult for parents to receive a religious or personal-belief exemption from the immunizations that are required to enroll their children in school. But it still preserved both exemptions in law — something vaccine proponents earlier this year wanted to eliminate.

The legislation was shelved in the final days of the lawmaking term, with Polis’ support in question and after long hearings and protests at the Capitol by opponents of the bill.

State Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn. (Handout)

Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Denver Democrat and emergency room nurse who sponsored this year’s immunization bill, said legislation is needed to “finish what we started here today.”

“We must continue to work,” he said, adding that he will be working before the 2020 legislative session begins in January on a potential bill to address the issue. “Does this solve all the problems? I don’t think so.”

Polis said the executive order will be covered by existing financial resources but that the legislature could dedicate additional money to the initiative.

“Vaccines are one of the most important elements of public health,” Polis said. “They have ended many plagues that have affected society.”

But while Polis’ executive order calls for increased education, including making sure Coloradans know that children 15 and older can decide for themselves whether to be vaccinated, when a reporter asked him to say that people who don’t immunize their children — known as “anti-vaxxers” — are wrong, he declined.

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“Wrong about what?” Polis said. “It’s not the decision I made for my kids. I gave my kids their shots, their immunizations. I encourage all parents to give children immunizations. We have in our state Christian Scientists, we have people who have objections, and nobody should be forced to do anything to their bodies. I’m pro-choice. I think it’s your body and it’s your decision. I’m not about to say any faith is wrong. We have freedom of religion in our country.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released new statistics on Thursday showing that vaccination rates are actually worsening in the state.

The rate of kindergarten-aged children who have been immunized with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine — or MMR — dropped to 87.4% this school year from 88.7% last school year. Hepatitis B vaccinations dropped to 90.8% from 92.1%; polio vaccinations dropped to 87.2% from 88.6%; and chickenpox vaccinations dropped to 86.5% from 87.7%.

Vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough rose to 90.3% from 88.7%.

In 2017, almost 9,500 Colorado kids were treated for vaccine-preventable illnesses at a cost of more than $50 million, the state says. One of those children died.