AUGUSTA, Maine — Parents, school nurses, and doctors were just some of the hundreds of Mainers who showed up to the State House in Augusta on Wednesday to show their support or opposition of a bill that would tighten vaccine exemption rules for kids who attend public school in Maine.
Most of those who came wanting to testify before the education committee about LD 798 would not get to speak but they came anyway.
"It is raw for me because I am only a year and a half out from my son's diagnosis," says Sarah Staffiere who came to support the bill. She is a biologist who teaches at Colby College. Her five-year-old son Gabriel got diagnosed with atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome in 2017.
Staffiere says his diagnosis means he has a compromised immune system and so she depends on other parents vaccinating their children so that her son will be safe. In the fall, Gabriel will start kindergarten in Waterville. Staffiere says she is petrified for him to be exposed to other unvaccinated students.
The proposed bill, LD 798, would ban all non-medical exemptions for parents to refuse vaccinations for their kids if they attend public school.
"It is one group against another. Both parties can't win and so it is emotional," said Staffiere through tears.
Currently, in Maine, parents can refuse to vaccinate their school-bound kids by citing religious or philosophical beliefs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine has one of the highest vaccination op-out rates in the nation.
Some parents who oppose the bill say they are not necessarily opposed to vaccines but do not want the government demanding them to do so.
Students from Maranacook were some of the first to testify in support of vaccinations for public students, saying that all should take a small risk to benefit others in our community.
"I don't think I can listen to the other side," Staffiere admitted who had decided she would share her son's story in front of the Education Committee.
Rep. Robert Foley came to oppose the LD 798. He says his daughter died just hours after getting her vaccinations. She was a healthy vibrant baby Foley said until she got a vaccination. Foley says he went on to have two other children both of whom he and his wife decided to give vaccinations but not all of them and never before six months. Foley said children from overseas come into Maine schools and do not have the same vaccinations as Americans do and yet they are not seen as a health threat.
"Unless you believe that healthy babies die for no reason, then I ask you to respect parents who have gone through what my wife and I have gone through," Foley pleaded.
LD 987 is the bill that opposes tightening vaccine exemptions. Sponsors say Mainers should be able to be exempt from vaccinating their children if they have religious or philosophical reasons for opting out.
The proposed legislation will not take away a parents choice but it will give parents who choose not to vaccinate their children a consequence," said bill cosponsor Rep.Genevieve McDonald of Stonington. She said if parental philosophies do not align with this bill then parents are free to choose a different education for their kids.
Rep. Cathy Jabber testified in opposition to LD 798 and said the bill segregates students. Public testimony began at 1 p.m. and lawmakers took the first hour and half of the public hearing to speak.
Nancy Beardsley of the Maine CDC said they support LD 798 because it will keep Maine children and schools safe and healthy. DHHS she says also supports clamping down on vaccine exemptions.
The bill would still allow children with medical reasons to be exempt from getting vaccines.
If the bill goes through, Maine would join just three other states (California, West Virginia and Mississippi) in having a law such as this.