California’s fraught history with childhood vaccines

State has struggled with low immunization rates and resorted to laws to help raise them

In some ways, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all schoolchildren as early as next year is straight out of the California pandemic playbook.

California was the first state to put into place a stay-at-home order in March 2020, the first to require vaccines for all state workers and the first to mandate masking in schools.

But there’s more to Newsom’s latest announcement: California has long struggled with low childhood immunization rates — and resorted to laws to help raise them.

In the early 2000s, as unfounded claims about vaccines proliferated and celebrities jumped onto the anti-vaccine bandwagon, vaccine resistance took root in many left-leaning communities, including large parts of California.

Between 2001 and 2014, the percentage of California parents choosing not to vaccinate their kindergartners more than tripled, pushing the state’s childhood vaccination rate to among the lowest in the nation.

When a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland infected more than 150 people in 2014, scientists blamed it on rising numbers of unvaccinated children.

The state’s vaccination rates eventually began to rise a few years later, after new laws greatly limited the ability of parents to opt out of childhood immunizations.

Fast-forward to the pandemic: COVID-19 vaccines are available to people 12 and older, and California has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

Some of that widespread coverage, however, is because of vaccine requirements, such as for students in the University of California system, health care workers and teachers.

Newsom extended those vaccine mandates Friday, adding a coronavirus vaccine to the other inoculations that are required for nearly 7 million students to attend K-to-12 schools in person. Los Angeles Unified and a handful of other districts had already approved similar requirements for older children; a vaccine could be rolled out for 5- to 11-year-olds in November.

The governor said he expected that the requirement — which is contingent for each age group on full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — would apply to grades seven and up starting in July, in time for the next fall semester. He added that parents could cite medical and personal beliefs to opt out of the requirement.

“We want to end this pandemic,” Newsom said Friday. “We are all exhausted by it.”

California parents so far have largely been willing to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, perhaps because the threat feels imminent or because vaccine resistance has increasingly become more common among the far right.

Across the country, 57% of 12- to 17-year-olds have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In California, the rate of vaccination among that age group is 69%, one of the highest in the nation.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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