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New vaccine rules for Maine students go into effect September 1

Students and their families will no longer be able to refuse required vaccines through "religious or philosophical" exemptions. Medical exemptions are still honored.

MAINE, USA — When students return to the classroom this fall, they'll need to have their required shots, unless they have a medical exemption. 

Legislation passed in 2019 removes "religious and philosophical exemptions" for students attending public schools in Maine for the already required vaccines. It takes effect September 1, 2021. 

The COVID-19 vaccine or flu shot will not be among the required vaccines. The required vaccines are the DTP vaccine, which includes coverage of tetanus and whooping cough, the MMR vaccine, covering measles, mump, and rubella, the polio vaccine, and the Varicella or chickenpox vaccine.

"These vaccines have been required for schools for years," Dr. Dora Mills, the Chief Health Improvement Officer for Maine Health, said. "These are vaccines that have been around for decades. These are not new vaccines at all."

Medical exemptions are still honored. However, Dr. Mills said, "There are really very few of those. The CDC has a list for each vaccine and they're different for each vaccine."

The decision to remove "religious or philosophical" exemptions was passed in the Maine Legislature in 2019. There was a people's veto referendum that same year, aimed at keeping the exemption in, but it failed.

RELATED: Mainers vote 'no' on Question 1

On Monday, three Maine agencies: DHHS, CDC, and DOE, held a required public hearing virtually to discuss "rulemaking" or the fine details of the law. 

Some participants raised concerns about the timeline for vaccinating students.

"I don't believe the 90 day grace period is sufficient to fully vaccinate a child who hasn't received any previous vaccines," said one woman.

Other participants shared concerns about IEP's or "individualized education programs."

Attorney Andy Cashman attended as a representative of an education group, saying, "The department has proposed having an exemption for students enrolled in a distanced education program. Arguably that could include a virtual charter school, and we think it's important to clarify that."

Throughout the hearing, and on the NEWS CENTER Maine Facebook feed, there was confusion about whether the law includes a mandate for a COVID-19 vaccine. It does not.

"This law does not include the COVID vaccine. That is so important to note," Dr. Mills said. 

All 50 states have legislation requiring specified vaccines for students, although exemptions vary from state to state.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maine is among six U.S. states without religious or philosophical exemptions. 

Dr. Mills said, "So the bottom line is, this summer, make sure your child is caught up on vaccination because this fall—September 1—this law goes into effect."

If you missed the chance to partake in the public hearing and would like to add a comment, you can still submit written comments through August 5 to Bridget.Bagley@maine.gov.  

RELATED: State holds public virtual hearing for school vaccination amendments