A layer of privacy has been added to an effort by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department to support schools as California’s controversial vaccination law, SB 277, goes into effect.
SB 277 requires students to be inoculated against 10 commonly targeted diseases, unless a doctor approves a medical exemption. The health department’s Medical Exemption Pilot Program (MEPP), initially rolled out on June 6, directs schools and childcare centers to report all medical exemptions to the department. MEPP requires schools to black out a student’s name and any identifying information before faxing his or her vaccination record to the department. MEPP’s original directive did not require such redaction.
The recent MEPP update also addresses concerns that department officials were attempting to regulate medical exemptions. “MEPP provides procedural support to schools and childcare centers, but does not ‘overturn’ medical exemptions issued by a licensed physician,” according to the department’s June 24 MEPP letter, signed by Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean and department Director Dr. Takashi Wada.
“Our goal in gathering this information is to look at the data,” Dean said in an interview. “It’s a new law, and we’re interested in seeing its impacts on the community. We are not in the business of analyzing the reason for a medical exemption or overturning it.”
Dean added that the information could be useful in a measles outbreak, for example. In such an event, she explained, the department would be able to pinpoint and support campuses with the most vulnerable student populations. “Having a larger picture of where those [unvaccinated] kids are could be very helpful,” she said.
In related news, Dean and Wada are named in a federal lawsuit — along with California’s departments of public health and education — filed on July 1 in San Diego by a handful of parents and public-health nonprofit groups seeking to slam the brakes on SB 277 before school starts later this summer. Among many details, the complaint argues that SB 277 violates a child’s right to a public education guaranteed by the California Constitution as well as religious freedom spelled out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In naming Dean and Wada specifically, the complaint takes issue with MEPP’s effort “to identify any Medical Exemption not meeting SB 277 criteria.” However, that language does not appear in the letter updating MEPP. “Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment on current litigation,” Dean said.
The issue becomes even more complicated in respect to any disabled student with an individualized education plan, or IEP. Under federal law, such special ed students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. However, according to the lawsuit, the Orange County Department of Education — also named as a defendant — has “publicly refused to admit children with IEPs into school without full vaccination records and has encouraged school districts to obtain court orders requiring parents of special education students to fully vaccinate their children … under the requirements of SB 277.”
On the other hand, the Los Angeles Unified School District, under legal advice, reportedly will not require special ed students to comply with mandated immunizations if it would prevent them from receiving required services.
“The law is not drafted clearly, and different school systems are applying the statute in different ways,” said Jim Turner, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “And we’re saying you can’t use the school system as an enforcement tool.”