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California Democrats are delaying their vaccine plans. Here's why

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 4/16/2022 Lindsey Holden, The Sacramento Bee
Richard Pan, a Democrat, prepares to announce a bill that adds COVID-19 vaccines to California's list of required inoculations for attending K-12 schools, at Arleta High School on Jan. 24, 2022, in Los Angeles. © Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS Richard Pan, a Democrat, prepares to announce a bill that adds COVID-19 vaccines to California's list of required inoculations for attending K-12 schools, at Arleta High School on Jan. 24, 2022, in Los Angeles.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Democrats were moving toward requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students and keeping them from opting out of shots with personal belief exemptions.

But the California Department of Public Health on Thursday announced it was delaying Gov. Gavin Newsom's school COVID-19 vaccine mandate until next year. And Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said he was holding Senate Bill 871, which would have closed the personal belief exemption loophole.

As the end of the current school year approaches, COVID-19 is no longer at the forefront of voters' minds, there's been a lag in federal approvals for children's vaccines and just more than one-third of young children have gotten shots to protect them from the virus.

The combination of factors left one vaccine advocacy group saddened, but not surprised.

"I think these are reasonable concerns from the governor's office and Dr. Pan," said Catherine Martin, executive director for the California Immunization Coalition. "The timing is tough."

Federal approval delays student mandates

State leaders have been working to put school vaccine requirements in place since October 2021, when Newsom announced he was ordering all students to get COVID-19 vaccines after the U.S Food and Drug Administration fully approves shots for their age group.

But more than six months later, the FDA has still fully approved Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines only for teens 16 and older. Children and teens ages 5 to 15 can get the Pfizer vaccine, but through an emergency use authorization issued by the agency.

The lack of full FDA approval prompted CDPH to say it will "not initiate the regulatory process for a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the 2022-2023 school year."

Newsom's administration planned to phase in the mandate, starting with grades seven through 12, and followed by grades six through kindergarten. But the lack of full approval prompted the delay.

"As such, any vaccine requirements would not take effect until after full FDA approval and no sooner than July 1, 2023," the agency said.

Pan has long been a champion for ending vaccine personal belief exemptions and tightening medical exemptions, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Video: CA Delays School Vaccine Mandate Until Summer 2023 (CBS Sacramento)

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On Friday, he said he held his bill because only about 34% of children ages 5 to 11 are vaccinated, according to CDPH data. He said this shows a need for greater vaccine access, and especially a need to get shots to pediatricians and families' trusted medical providers.

"Clearly, trying to do a mandate when only one-third so far have gotten vaccinated — we need to focus on getting the vaccine rate up," Pan said.

When asked whether politics factored into the decision, Pan said his focus is on public health and keeping children safe. Vaccine mandates are only one of a series of tools the state can use to protect people from disease outbreaks, and the mandate may be premature given the current shot rate for children, he said.

"Certainly, if they want to say it's about politics, they can say it's about politics," Pan said.

Republicans rejoice, vaccine advocates disappointed

Republicans seized on Pan's deferred bill to call for Newsom to end his student vaccine requirement.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, D-Rocklin, called the action "a major victory for students and parents across California who made their voices heard."

"I am calling on Governor Newsom to respect the will of California families and immediately rescind his executive vaccine mandate for middle and high school students," Kiley said in a statement.

Martin from the California Immunization Coalition, which supported Pan's bill, called the move "disappointing, but not unexpected."

"The desire is to avoid (mass illness) as much as possible, because we do have a vaccine, and we do have public health measures," Martin said. "But I think people are exhausted emotionally and physically."

A Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released Thursday showed just 4% of the voters surveyed said COVID-19 is one of the most important issues for the state to address.

By contrast, 31% of voters surveyed said housing affordability was an important issue, and 29% cited homelessness.

Martin also said she believes Newsom's student vaccine order and Pan's bill were "intertwined," and it would have been tough to move forward with ending the personal belief exemption without the mandate.

The CDPH would likely have needed to begin rolling out plans to implement the school mandate around May or June to allow children time to get vaccinated before starting the 2022-2023 school year, Martin said.

The lack of full FDA approval for most children and teen vaccines would have made that timing nearly impossible.

"Timing-wise, they had to make the best decision for everyone," Martin said.

(c)2022 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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