As if 2020 wasn’t enough of a roller-coaster ride for New Jerseyans, the fierce battle over state-mandated vaccination appears to be heating up again.
Introduced last week, Assembly Bill 4576 seeks to make the annual flu vaccine mandatory for all children in New Jersey who attend public or private schools, including childcare centers, preschools, day care, students in grades Kindergarten through 12, and higher education students in NJ’s colleges and universities. The bill is sponsored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway (a medical doctor who also has a law degree), Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (a physicist) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (a nurse).
According to proponents for the bill, mandating the flu vaccine is “a reasonable and necessary” measure that will make it easier for health officials to determine if students who display flu-like symptoms are actually suffering from COVID-19, since the two viruses share commonalities that can make them difficult to distinguish from one another at the onset. The bill also says that “patients with influenza will compete with COVID-19 patients and other severely ill patients for hospital space and resources” unless steps are taken to increase the number of people vaccinated against influenza, and reduce the likelihood of spread.
There’s no Senate version of the bill yet, but one could be introduced and heard as early as Monday, September 14th (the date of the next Senate Quorum call, which also coincides with the next available date the Senate Health Committee could meet, and Assembly Committees are scheduled to meet at the Call of the Speaker).
According to the bill, children in child care centers, preschools, K-12 public and private schools, and colleges & universities, must be vaccinated against the flu on an annual basis. If the child/student has not produced proof of flu vaccination by December 31st each year, the child/student can no longer be enrolled. The bill states that “children in New Jersey who are between six and 59 months of age and are attending a child care center or preschool are also required by the State Sanitary Code to receive an annual vaccination for influenza,” the difference is that A4576 would codify that requirement into statutory law–something that is sure to raise the ire of vaccination choice advocates.
The bill also appears to make it more difficult to claim a religious objection. The only exceptions permitted are for students who can produce a letter from a physician stating that the vaccination would be medically harmful to them, or if there is a religious objection whereby taking the vaccine would violate “a bona fide religious tenet or practice” of the child or their parent/guardian. Having a “general philosophical or moral objection” to the vaccine is not enough to get an exemption from the mandatory vaccine requirement put forth in the bill.
If recent history is any indication, the opposition and debate over A4576 are sure to be significant. What remains to be seen is whether or not those who oppose mandatory vaccination will be able to mobilize and fight back with the same intensity as they did earlier this year, given social distancing restrictions currently in place, and the sharply-reduced public access to Legislative Committee hearings. Members of the public are not currently permitted to attend Voting Sessions due to COVID-19 restrictions.
As the 218th Legislative Session came to a close in January 2020, thousands of anti-vaxx/vaccination choice protesters assembled outside the Statehouse, chanting as lawmakers debated legislation (S2173/A3818) that sought to remove New Jersey’s religious exemption for vaccines. A vocal groundswell of grass-roots opposition against the bill ultimately led to its demise, with the legislative session expiring before the measure could be put to a final vote. At the time, Senate President Sweeney vowed to revisit the issue during the new Legislative session, and A4576 appears to be that promise coming to fruition.
A4576 has been referred to the Assembly Health Committee, where Assemblyman Conaway, the bill’s first prime sponsor, serves as Committee Chair. Also serving on the Health Committee: Assemblyman Jamel Holley, who found himself in hot water with fellow Democrats when he expressed strong support for the anti-vaxx protestors. In an op-ed published after the push to remove religious exemptions was defeated, Holley sought to clarify his position. “Let me be clear: I’m not against vaccines. I believe in medicine for the health of our state,” Holley wrote. “However, I do not believe that elected officials should be overreaching into the households of parents who are entitled to make informed medical decisions for their children. Nor do I believe I should be placed in a position to remove a religious exemption for those individuals that chose to exercise that constitutional right.”
Holley is also the prime sponsor of A3460, the companion bill to S1791, introduced by Republican Senators Joseph Pennacchio and Michael Testa in February 2020, which would hold the State of New Jersey liable for injuries caused by state-mandated vaccines. Both bills have been referred to their respective Health committees, but not surprisingly, have received no action thus far.