In which my state senator Patrick Colbeck goes pretty much full antivaccine

A few years ago, I wrote about how vaccine uptake in certain parts of Michigan were—shall we say?—suboptimal and how that was facilitating outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as pertussis. The reason, unfortunately, is because the percentage of children whose parents claimed so-called “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates was among the highest in the US. Fortunately, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHSS) decided to do something about it. Basically, in 2014, the MDHSS drafted a regulation that was approved by a legislative oversight board that, beginning January 1, 2015, all parents claiming personal belief exemptions to their local county health department office in order to:

  • Be educated by a local health worker about vaccines and the diseases they are intended to prevent.
  • Sign the universal state form that includes a statement of acknowledgement that parents understand they may be putting their own children and others at risk by refusing the shots.

It was such a simple change, but it was effective. Waiver rates began to drop almost immediately and have remained low. Thus far, the new policy has been a resounding success. Basically, Michigan has probably lowered personal belief exemptions nearly to as low as they can go, short passing a law like California SB 277, which eliminated nonmedical exemptions (something that is incredibly unlikely to happen in Michigan any time soon). Hopefully with other campaigns to increase vaccine uptake, we can push the rate even lower.

Unfortunately, ever since the beginning, there have been forces in the state that have opposed this very simple, very effective intervention. They represent an unholy alliance of antivaccine groups, like Michigan for Vaccine Choice, allied with conservative, libertarian-leaning people who don’t like government mandates of almost any kind. It began almost immediately, with legislators trying to pass a law to revoke the education requirement and forbid the MDHSS to impose any similar regulations in the future. They failed in 2015. Unfotunately, they were back in 2017 trying to make measles great again and again, aided and abetted by out-of-state antivaxers. That effort, fortunately, also failed.

Unfortunately, it appears that antivaccine forces haven’t given up, as indicated in an editorial in The Detroit News, first noting the success of the MDHHS requirement:

Nevertheless, the education that parents have received in the meetings has changed their minds. Since the requirement has been in place, there has been a 35 percent drop in waivers, according to state health officials.

Ignorance is not freedom. Lawmakers should support the efforts of health officials to educate parents about vaccination and allow them to make an informed choice.

In addition, the proposed bills would put children who cannot receive vaccinations due to preexisting medical conditions in danger. Vaccinated children protect non-vaccinated children by forming a “herd” community where children with vulnerable immune systems are only surrounded only by those who are immune to certain illnesses and who pose no risk.

“It would be a step back, not just for the children, but for the community as a whole,” Bies says.

Quite right. The bills discussed in the editorial would actually go beyond just reversing the MDHHS vaccine education requirement for school waivers, as I discussed when they were first introduced last year. There is a provision in these bills that would prevent local health officers from keeping unvaccinated children out of school outside of an actual epidemic without the express permission of the MDHSS. (I guess local control is only a good thing when it’s something supporters of this bill support.) That’s right, if this bill were passed into law, if there’s an outbreak at a school that doesn’t fit the definition of an epidemic, local school health officers could not take a very simple, very much desirable step, namely to keep unvaccinated children out of school to protect them and prevent the outbreak from enlarging and spreading. As I said at the time, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out the rationale for this provision, given that the only purpose this provision serves is to endanger children who are not vaccinated, while at the same time inserting additional susceptible children into an environment where a contagious disease is spreading, thus making an outbreak more likely. I noted at the time that, in the case of a small outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease that doesn’t qualify as an epidemic, preventing health officers from taking the reasonable precaution of keeping children not vaccinated against the disease out of school is an excellent strategy to make it more likely that a small outbreak becomes a large one—or even becomes an epidemic. By the time you have an epidemic, keeping unvaccinated children out of school becomes much less effective, as it’s a strategy that works best early in the course of an outbreak.

What led me to blog about this situation yet again is something that strikes close to home. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have a state senator who is…well…rather sympathetic to the antivaccine movement. His name is Patrick Colbeck, and I first noted his antivaccine sympathies when I described how on his Facebook page he recommended a screening of an antivaccine movie being held at a local theater and said that he would be there. I then noted that he was the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill discussed in the Detroit News editorial quoted above.

Here he is, unhappy about the Detroit News editorial:

The word “vaccination” elicits different responses from different people (Re: The Detroit News’ Dec. 27 editorial, “Know risks before getting vaccine waiver”). For many, it is viewed as a lifesaver. Vaccines have wiped out crippling and deadly diseases such as smallpox and polio. Others see vaccines as a way to immunize themselves from diseases like chickenpox, which have a much lower fatality rate than, for instance, smallpox.

But there are some people who are concerned about “adverse effects” from vaccines or have religious objections to certain vaccines, such as those developed using aborted human embryos.

OK, right here I’m going to say it. Patrick Colbeck is, if not antivaccine, very antivaccine-sympathetic. He’s parroting the same nonsense that antivaxers promote. Regular readers will note the false equivalence, in which Colbeck appears to accept at face value the exaggerated claims of “adverse effects” of vaccines made by antivaxers and invokes the commonly (and cynical) appeal to “aborted fetal cells” in vaccines. I can’t help but note that the largest and most consistent anti-abortion organization in history, the Roman Catholic Church (and Colbeck is Catholic) has said that the concern about “fetal cells” is not a reason not to vaccinate.

Still don’t believe Colbeck is going further down the antivaccine rabbit hole? Check out his next gambit:

These are not “fringe” concerns as some would have this issue portrayed. In 1986, the federal government passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act to compensate families who experience “adverse effects” upon receiving routine immunizations as pharmaceutical companies are indemnified against lawsuits regarding vaccines. To date, approximately $3.6 billion in federal tax dollars has been paid to victims of vaccine injuries.

Um, no, Mr. Colbeck. They are fringe concerns. As for the appeal to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, I like to point out the many exaggerations and fallacies in the antivaccine narrative about that law.

Next up:

When the state Legislature passed the 1978 law requiring children to be vaccinated before attending school or daycare, it also stipulated that a parent could choose to decline any vaccine due to medical, religious or other convictions. It clearly outlines how a parent exercises that right, and the process doesn’t involve the health department. In 2015, that didn’t stop the Department of Health and Human Services from introducing a new regulation that required parents to listen to a one-sided lecture from a local health department official in order to obtain a vaccination waiver.

As I discussed at the time, the MDHSS regulation was subject to regulatory oversight. The new rule was approved, as such rules must be, by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan legislative committee charged with the legislative oversight of administrative rules proposed by state agencies. Basically, JCAR reviews state agency regulations and, if it takes no action, allows them to go into effect after 15 legislative days. The committee is composed of lawmakers, giving it a legislative imprimatur, but it is not the Legislature itself, thus avoiding the political rancor that can accompany debate on controversial issues. Antivaccinationists have described this as a “stealth move,” but it was entirely legal.

So, yes, Patrick Colbeck is, if not outright antivaccine, very much a fellow traveler with antivaccine activists. Fortunately, he is term-limited. He can’t run for reelection to the state senate this year.

Unfortunately, he is running for Governor. Fortunately, his odds of securing the Republican nomination, much less becoming governor, are long.