Wisconsin Republicans block vaccine mandate for meningitis

Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin Republicans blocked on Thursday, March 9 Gov. Tony Evers' plan to require student vaccinations against meningitis.

The Legislature's GOP-controlled rules committee voted 6-4 to block the plan. All six of the panel's Republican members voted to stop the policy. The vote comes two days after a lengthy public hearing on the policy changes that saw parents complain that the new requirements trample their liberties. The committee blocked the proposal last legislative session as well.

"(The committee), once again, met its oversight duty relating to the improper actions taken by DHS to enact binding administrative code provisions that were arbitrary and capricious, as well as, placing undue hardships on the families of this state," Sen. Steve Nass, a committee co-chairman, said in a statement. He said the committee action "restores the reasonable right of parents to make immunization decisions for their children."

Officials with the state health department, an Evers Cabinet agency, announced in February that beginning this fall students entering 7th grade must be vaccinated against meningitis and high school seniors must get a booster shot. Right now students don't have to get vaccinated against meningitis, although it is recommended.

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The committee also stopped the department from additional requirements regarding the chickenpox vaccine. It would have required parents provide schools with evidence from a health care provider that their child had chickenpox to avoid a chickenpox vaccination requirement. That policy would have still allowed parents the other exemptions without a doctor's note, which are allowed for all vaccine requirements, that is for "personal conviction, religious, or medical/health reasons."

The department currently requires students to get vaccinated against chickenpox to enter every grade from kindergarten through 6th grade. Parents can win an exemption from the requirement if they tell the school that their child was infected. 

Also scrapped is department updating its definition of an outbreak to include at least five cases of chickenpox and at least three cases of meningitis. Under current state regulations if an outbreak occurs in a school or child care center, students can be prohibited from entering the building until they're immunized.

The changes led Republicans, still stinging from COVID-19 mandates and shutdowns, to action.

Nass began the public hearing Tuesday by calling state epidemiologist Dr. Ryan Westergaard "Wisconsin's Dr. Fauci" and accusing the health department of assuming parents lie about their children's chickenpox infections so they can go to school.

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Parents lined up at the hearing to complain about the policy revisions. They argued the health department was overreaching and they know how to best take care of their children.

Westergaard and Dr. Stephanie Schauer, the state immunization program manager, tried to explain to the committee that meningitis is a potentially lethal disease and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended students get vaccinated against it since 2005.

Westergaard added that chickenpox has become so rare that parents may not recognize the disease and unknowingly send their infected children to school.

Republicans would have none of it. Nass said he doesn't trust what Westergaard says after he recommended the state shutdown during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.