The endgame has come and gone. SB 276, the bill that would take care of the major defect in SB 277, the California law passed in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak in 2015 that eliminated nonmedical “personal belief” exemptions to school vaccine mandates, is now law, but not before a lot of attempts by antivaxers to stop it. Without going into a lot of detail, given how many times I’ve written about it, that deficiency in SB 277 was one that saw as soon as the bill passed the California legislature and was signed into law. Unfortunately, SB 277 permits basically any physician to write a letter claiming a medical exemption to school vaccine mandates for a patient, rather than requiring state oversight to make sure that only medically valid medical exemptions were granted. Predictably, the antivaccine quacks in California saw this loophole as an opportunity. It wasn’t long before quacks started selling bogus medical exemptions for antivaccine or vaccine-hesitant parents, claiming all sorts of scientifically unsupportable “indications.” Some even did it online, and in the Bay area five doctors wrote one-third of the medical exemption letters. Thus was born SB 276 to tighten up the medical exemption progress. (I’ll tell you how in a moment.) As a result, antivaxers have gone absolutely wild, portraying themselves as the “new civil rights movement” and cranking up the demonstrations to 11, particularly in a raucous protest yesterday in which the interfered with the functioning of the California legislature.
Before I discuss yesterday’s events, there is much to discuss about SB 276 and the political shenanigans around it. Unfortunately, those shenanigans came from California Governor Gavin Newsom. You see, SB 276 actually passed the legislature a week ago, but even before the Senate passed the bill, sending it to his desk, Gov. Newsom started signaling that he wasn’t happy with the bill as passed and wanted changes, thus throwing its signing into doubt. Ultimately, the bill became law, but Gov. Newsom didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in the process.
The long strange road from SB 276 to “the new civil rights movement” begins
Here’s a brief recounting of the long strange history of SB 276. In response to the problem of antivaccine-sympathetic doctors writing bogus medical exemptions, Senator Richard Pan, who had co-sponsored SB 277 and was the driving force behind getting it passed, introduced SB 276. In brief, SB 276 would mandate a database of medical exemptions, so that the state can keep track of which doctors are issuing the most medical exemptions, and require that requests for medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates be approved by the State Public Health Officer or designee, who could reject exemptions not supported by science.
The bill as passed would also require the department to annually review immunization reports from schools, to identify schools with an overall immunization rate of less than 95%, physicians and surgeons who submitted 5 or more medical exemption forms in a calendar year, and schools and institutions that do not report immunization rates to the department. It would also require a clinically trained staff member who is a physician, surgeon, or a registered nurse to review all medical exemptions meeting these conditions, authorizing the State Public Health Officer to review the exemptions identified by that staff member as fraudulent or inconsistent with established guidelines. The department can report physicians issuing fraudulent or scientifically unjustified medical exemptions to the state medical board. Other important changes to the law in SB 276 include provisions that: (1) require physicians issuing a medical exemption to actually see and examine the child; (2) require physicians who are not the child’s primary care physician to notify that child’s primary care physician when they issue an exemption; (3) require physicians to use a state form that requires them to clearly address the specific contraindications to vaccination being invoked; (4) bar physicians demanding a separate charge for writing an exemption, although of course they can charge for the office visit during which they evaluate and examine the child.
This was the result of a compromise with Gov. Newsom in June. Instead of requiring the California Department of Public Health to approve all medical exemption requests, Newsom demanded that SB 276 narrow its focus to reviewing medical exemption requests from doctors who write five or more medical exemptions in a year and to requests coming from schools or day cares with immunization rates of less than 95%. It did water the bill down somewhat, but wasn’t a horrible compromise. Once those changes were made, Gov. Newsom said that he would “absolutely sign” the bill when it hit his desk.
So it was that Gov. Newsom’s move surprised backers of the bill, because previously Gov. Newsom had signaled that he would sign the bill once it was passed by the legislature:
Medical groups and a lawmaker behind California legislation to crack down on vaccine exemptions said Wednesday they were surprised by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s last-minute call for changes to the bill, a move that inserted fresh uncertainty into one of the year’s most contentious issues.
It was the second time the Democratic governor sought to change the measure aimed at doctors who sell fraudulent medical exemptions for students, a proposal vehemently opposed by anti-vaccine activists. After expressing hesitancy with the bill and winning substantial changes to the measure in June, Newsom had committed to signing it.
The Governor shocked SB 276 supporters with these two Tweets right after the Labor Day holiday weekend:
What did it mean? And why was Newsom asking for more changes to a bill that he had previously indicated that he would sign, after having already insisted on changes that watered the bill down in June?
After going back on his promise June, Newsom demanded more changes:
Newsom’s new demands go further than his initial amendments accepted by Pan and legislative leaders. One change would ensure that the state will not review medical exemptions granted before January 2020. That has stirred fears that it’ll lead to a mad rush on medical exemptions this year that state public health authorities won’t be able to retroactively scrutinize.
The governor also wants to strike SB 276 language that would require doctors to sign under penalty of perjury that they are not granting exemptions for financial gain.
Pan and other lawmakers were stunned by the late amendment request, which came on Twitter only a few minutes after the last major opportunity to amend the bill in the Assembly. With SB 276 headed to Newsom’s desk, the Legislature would have to insert the governor’s changes into a separate bill.
So why would Gov. Newsom go back on his word? It’s a reversal that could really harm him in future dealings with the legislature:
Political strategists from both parties say Newsom’s late tactics represent a remarkable political mistake for the new governor that could potentially harm his reputation and dampen his ability to govern.
“When you give your word and you make a deal, you’ve got to stand by it,” said Democratic strategist Dana Williamson, longtime adviser to former Gov. Jerry Brown. “Otherwise people will think twice the next time he says there’s a deal.”
Williamson said even if the governor learned new information or had a revelation about concerns over the policy, there are avenues like legislative “cleanup” bills to address outstanding issues. She also said announcing his reservations on Twitter was not the best course of action.
“I do think he could have picked up the phone,” Williamson said.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Newsom risks making enemies in the Legislature. He and Williamson couldn’t think of a similar situation faced by Brown or Schwarzenegger.
Reaction to Newsom’s flip-flop from mainstream media sources was virtually all very negative. I, too, wondered what the heck was going on. Did Newsom or his wife have friends or family who thought their children had been injured by vaccines? Did they know antivax quacks who wrote bogus medical exemptions? Is there a big donor who’s an antivaxer? What made him change his mind? It certainly wasn’t a good look.
Fortunately, by last week’s end, an agreement was struck. In brief, the Governor agreed to sign SB 276 as long as the changes he wants are passed in a second bill, SB 714; Gov. Newsom will sign both bills into law at the same time. The agreement is definitely a mixed bag. Unfortunately, it includes Gov. Newsom’s mind-numbingly bad idea to grandfather in all existing medical exemptions before January 1, 2020, which will definitely spark a panicked gold rush for vaccine exemptions over the next three and a half months. SB 714 will also unfortunately remove a provision in SB 276 that would have required doctors to certify that medical exemptions are accurate, under penalty of perjury. (It’s almost as though Gov. Newsom doesn’t want any quack doctors to face penalties for perjury.) It would appear, though, that Sen. Pan wrung some concessions from Gov. Newsom. For example:
However, Newsom’s amendment contains a key caveat: New medical exemptions would be required when a child enters kindergarten, seventh grade or changes schools. By adding that provision, permanent medical exemptions would no longer be valid throughout a child’s K-12 education. A similar approach was used when the state eliminated personal belief exemptions in 2015 under another bill by Pan that allowed immunization waivers to remain valid until a child reached kindergarten, seventh grade or changed schools.
There is also one new provision in SB 714 that actually improves SB 276. It’s a provision I wholeheartedly approve of:
SB 714, which is also written by Pan, would invalidate any medical exemption from a doctor who has faced disciplinary action by the state medical board.
Sears, who is currently subject to a 35-month probation order issued by the medical board in a vaccine case that did not involve school medical exemptions, expressed disbelief over the amendments released Friday.
“[This bill would] mean that any exemption written by a doctor who has been disciplined by the board for any reason, even one unrelated to vaccination, will be subject to revocation,” Sears said. “So the hundreds of patients I’ve written exemptions for over the past four years after having a severe vaccine reaction will lose their exemptions. This seems like a broad overreach from a government that is supposed to protect its medically fragile children.”
So, yes, the compromise is very much a mixed bag, but that’s politics, I guess. Certainly, the law in California governing school vaccine mandates will be improved after passage of SB 276 and SB 714 compared to before, but, man, the process was ugly and the Governor’s meddling was depressing to behold. It also set the stage for the antivaccine protest today, where antivaxers donned the mantle of the civil rights movement to press their complaint.
Antivaxers disrupt the California Capitol Building
The good news is that Sen. Pan won. SB 714 passed the Assembly and the Senate yesterday, and Gov. Newsom signed both SB 276 and SB 714 into law:
California will enact sweeping new restrictions on medical exemptions for vaccines under bills signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday, despite near-constant protests in the state Capitol that resulted in arrests after opponents blocked entrances to the statehouse and temporarily shut down legislative sessions.
Newsom signed Senate Bill 276 by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) soon after the state Legislature gave final approval to a separate bill, SB 714, that contained fixes sought by the governor.Newsom also signed SB 714.
Together the two bills would create state oversight of medical exemptions for vaccines required to attend public and private schools, as well as day care centers.
On Monday, the Senate passed AB 714 27-11, while the Assembly approved it 43-14. After the vote in the Assembly, protesters shut down the floor session with chants of “protect our children” as lawmakers hurriedly left the chamber. The Legislature passed SB 276 last week.
Congratulations, California! You’ve protected your children and shut down a quack cottage industry. It’s a shame that it won’t happen right away, but politics is the art of the possible.
Antivaxers were ready and descended on the California Capitol yesterday. It was all over Twitter, as I’ll show. Leading up to the protests there were a number of racist memes, Tweets, and posts about Sen. Pan:
Of course, as I documented before, Sen. Pan was even physically assaulted a couple of weeks ago, as well as a heated demonstration a few days later, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Del Bigtree in full form riling up the crowd. Here’s a typical Facebook post advertising the event:
Entrances were blocked and proceedings were delayed at the California Capitol on Monday as people protested legislation that would limit medical exemptions for vaccines. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bills — Senate Bill 276 and Senate Bill 714 — into law Monday evening. The protests took place Monday morning and then later in the day during state Senate proceedings.
More on Twitter:
This particular Tweet caught my eye, particularly the sign proclaiming the antivaxers the “new civil rights movement.” All I could think was: Bloody hell, antivaxers proclaiming themselves the “new civil rights movement” again? Can these white, mostly affluent clueless wonders be any more oblivious to their privileged position in society? Notice the paucity of persons of color. That crowd is as white as a Trump rally.
Don’t believe me? Here’s more:
Although in fairness, there is one African-American woman in the video above.
Still, it was an amazingly display of lack of self-awareness, in which overwhelmingly white, affluent, privileged people have the temerity to liken themselves to the civil rights movement. Of course, antivaxers do so love to liken themselves to oppressed minorities. If it isn’t the “new civil rights movement,” it’s Jews during the Holocaust, slaves, rape victims, and just about any persecuted group you can think of. Whenever I see antivaxers doing that, I like to say that these clowns have no idea what real persecution is, and I hope for their sake that they never do.
I mentioned the racism aimed at Sen. Pan earlier. That wasn’t the only racism on display. In the days leading up to the rally, there was this:
I’m not sure where Denise Marie, who welcomed the “Oath Keepers” got the idea that this group was the Oath Keepers. They’re not. They appear to be the California State Militia, specifically, the California State Militia, First Regiment, California Valley Patriots and the State of Jefferson. This is nearly as bad:
We are a garrison of concerned citizen soldiers dedicated to our Constitution and standing united in the defense of our country from all enemies, be they foreign or domestic. CSM covers the entire state of California with 4 Companies: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. As a unit, we stand at the ready to both support and reinforce the efforts of law enforcement and organized military forces in the civil defense of our nation, our state, our cities and neighborhoods, and most importantly the defense of our families. Once rostered, you can train individually or choose to work with other militiamen at regularly scheduled drills. The training, inspired by the original Minutemen, will be geared at familiarization with to include: Light Infantry Operations Marksmanship Land Navigation First Aid Wilderness Search and Rescue The “grassroots” defense of our nation is every citizen’s responsibility.
Militias exist because volatile young white men drawn to antigovernment extremist beliefs create them and join them. Not surprisingly, militias tend to have white nationalist leanings, and California State Militia is no different. It takes part in “border operations” to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing the border. For example, last year, in response to the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico from Central America to the US border, the California State Militia took place in a “border watching” exercise with patriot groups, including Minutemen and Oathkeepers, a right wing white supremacist group.
The movement is bound together by a shared disdain for the federal government, but individual members’ motivations for joining can vary widely. “We all have different reasons to be here,” Captain Clyde Massengale of the California State Militia’s Delta Company told the new recruits at my first training. “Some might believe what is happening is something biblical right now. Some might believe it’s the New World Order. Some might believe the New World Order is making what is happening follow the Bible. Who the fuck knows? Who the fuck cares?” Come what may, the militia would be ready. When shit hit the fan, it would have a secret, fortified bugout location where we could bring our families. A new community might someday need to be built there. Massengale said that under his command, life in the bugout would be modeled after ancient Rome. Active, patched members of the California State Militia would be considered citizens, while lapsed members and outsiders would not.
Clyde Massengale of the California State Militia chimed in on the comments of this video that he doesn’t know of Oath Keepers support the antivaccine rally, but that the California State Militia was behind the antivaxers:
Yes, antivaxers chanted “All lives matter,” because of course they did. Remember that “all lives matter” is a phrase based on a misunderstanding of “Black Lives Matter,” whose purpose as a retort is to dismiss the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement and take the focus away from the concerns of African-Americans and police violence. That’s not what I consider the “new civil rights movement.” Of course, the irony is that, when it comes to infectious disease, all lives do matter, but antivaxers apparently don’t think the lives of those who need legitimate medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates matter, given how they don’t care if they degrade herd immunity and make the likelihood of outbreaks higher. Basically, antivaxers chanting “All lives matter” is both racist, an indication of their obliviousness, and ironic in the worst way possible when it comes to infectious disease.
Some more scenes from the protests show how chaotic it got at times:
No, these are not members of a new “civil rights movement.” There is no “right” to endanger others. Also, children are not the property of the parents. They are autonomous beings, with rights of their own, one of which is the right to proper medical and preventative care. Parents have no right endanger their children or others, and claiming that doing so is something a “new civil rights movement” needs to fight for dishonors the real civil rights movement. I’m sure we’ll see more of the same today and this week during more protests by antivaxers. In fact, now that SB 276 and SB 714 are actually law, it wouldn’t surprise me if antivaxers crank up the rhetoric into dangerous, violent territory.
I’ll just conclude by congratulating Sen. Pan and everyone who worked to pass SB 276 and then later SB 714. Kudos to the state government for not letting a fringe group cranks with delusions of being civil rights warriors stop them from passing these laws to protect California’s children.