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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Immunization Debate Turns To Vermont's Teachers

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Angela Evancie
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VPR/file
Jericho Rep. George Till is a doctor and a co-sponsor of legislation to eliminate both the religious and the philosophical exemptions for vaccinations. He says he also wants the bill to require that all teachers and school staff be fully immunized.

With the national outbreak of measles, there's been a lot of focus at the Statehouse on exemptions to Vermont's mandatory childhood immunization law. But some lawmakers want to be certain that all teachers are fully immunized as well.

Vermont is one of 20 states to have three exemptions to its childhood immunization law: for medical reasons, for religious purposes or for philosophical beliefs.

According to the latest report from the Vermont Health Department, the parents of roughly 6 percent of all kindergarten students use the philosophical exemption for at least one of the five mandatory vaccines.

Jericho Rep. George Till is a physician and a co-sponsor of legislation to eliminate both the religious and the philosophical exemptions.

He says he also wants the bill to require that all teachers and school staff have been fully immunized.

"I think it's important that the whole staff either demonstrate that they have immunity ... or that they get re-vaccinated if they don't have the immunity." - Rep. George Till

"I think it's an excellent idea. Whether [you’re] an adult or a child, you can spread measles and other contagious diseases easily,” Till says. “The focus is on measles right now because of the outbreak and because of how incredibly contagious measles is. One of the things about measles is you don't even have to be in the room. Still, you can have left your measles behind and for a couple of hours that room is still infectious." 

Till says at the start of the school year, all staff should have to prove that their immunizations are up to date.

"I think it's important that the whole staff either demonstrate that they have immunity – and it's easily done with a blood test – or that they get re-vaccinated if they don't have the immunity,” Till says.

Martha Allen is the president of the Vermont NEA, the state's teachers union. Her organization is supporting the elimination of the philosophical exemption. She says it also makes sense to require that teachers be vaccinated.

"Why would we mandate that children have to be vaccinated when the adults around them don't?" - Martha Allen, Vermont NEA

"I would say, yes, why would we mandate that children have to be vaccinated when the adults around them don't?” Allen says. “It's the same idea: safety for our students and our staff members."  

Vermont's top two officeholders disagree about the need for the legislation: Lt. Gov. Phil Scott says he supports doing away with the philosophical exemption because he views it as a public safety issue. However, Gov. Peter Shumlin says the current law is working well and doesn't need to be changed. 

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