AUGUSTA, Maine — For months on end, conversation about vaccines has happened almost exclusively in the context of COVID-19. A new law taking effect this week, though, addresses other types of vaccinations among students in Maine.
As of Wednesday, Sept. 1, philosophical and religious exemptions from required vaccines will no longer be allowed in public or private schools in Maine. That's because of bill LD 798, signed into law in May 2019, which requires students in grades Pre-K-12 to be vaccinated against certain diseases unless they have a medical exemption.
Required immunizations for Pre-K-12 students include:
- DTaP vaccine (to protect against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis)
- Polio vaccine
- MMR vaccine (to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella)
- Varicella vaccine
Required immunizations for students in grades 7 through 12 also include:
- MCV4 vaccine (to protect against meningococcal disease)
Dr. Laura Blaisdell is a pediatrician and vice president of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She was also co-chairwoman of Maine Families for Vaccines, pushing against the 2020 people's referendum to overturn the new law. On Super Tuesday, the people's referendum was rejected.
Blaisdell said medical exemptions for vaccines account for less than 1% of the population, but Maine was seeing a 5.6% exemption rate. Now, she said, that number has come down to around 4%. She hopes it's a sign that the new law is already making an impact.
Blaisdell said the point of the new law is to protect those who truly can't be vaccinated -- for example, if they're on immunocompromising therapies or have had similar therapies in the past.
She said she believes the coronavirus pandemic may actually be showing some people what is needed to make vaccines effective.
"People are now realizing, 'I'm vaccinated, but we're still seeing transmission. Why is that?'" Blaisdell said. "The reason is because we don't have community immunity rates that are high enough to keep transmission at bay. That was the problem with our schools, and that was the reason why this bill was put into place -- because we were seeing outbreaks, despite having people being vaccinated."
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Blaisdell said the pandemic has made it difficult for some providers to give childhood vaccines, so they're playing "catch-up." That means there is a recommended grace period for families to get their students vaccinated. If they choose not to do so, homeschooling is an option.
Under the new law, philosophical and religious exemptions will only be allowed for students with an individualized education plan who already had an exemption in place before Sept. 1. This new law does not apply to COVID-19.