Colorado’s pro-vaccine bill sounds like an easy sell in a pandemic. Here’s why it’s not.

Of the more than 350 bills left on the vine when Colorado paused its legislative session March 14, perhaps none is more relevant now than the one that attempts to tighten vaccine exemptions in an effort to boost the state’s worst-in-the-nation child immunization rates.

“I think it couldn’t be more clear now that vaccinations save lives, ensure the ongoing health of the community,” said Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola of Brighton, a sponsor of the bill. “And we see the role that prevention plays in keeping our economy strong.”

The bill, Senate Bill 163, was well on its way to passage when the legislative session stopped, having passed out of the Senate. It needed approval only from the Democrat-dominated House and Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who, despite calling himself “pro-choice” on vaccines, has promised to sign it.

With the coronavirus pandemic leaving the state budget in tatters, Capitol leaders have said pricey bills are off the table — but the vaccine exemption bill is only projected to cost about $75,000 over the next two years.

And yet a bill that in many ways seems like a layup is far from it, lawmakers say.

A dilemma faces the Democrats who run the House: Despite broad public support for vaccinations, this bill — more than any other the General Assembly has heard in the last two years — regularly draws hundreds of citizens to oppose it. That’s a problem when a highly contagious virus is still very much present in Colorado.

When the legislature resumes its session May 26, lawmakers want to limit the amount of time they spend at the Capitol and have said they’re prepared to scrap most any pending bill that would require significant public engagement.

“Some legislators are nervous about coming to the Capitol at all,” said state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, who is a practicing pediatrician. “Compound that with the fact that if we take on a bill that’s going to bring in a whole population of people who are not immunized and may not respect social distancing, that makes people nervous.”

A request for comment from House Democratic leadership on this dilemma, and on how the bill might be handled, was denied.

Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn, who’s sponsoring the bill, said he’s not sure yet what leadership in his caucus will decide. But he’s convinced that the bill must pass this year. He tried to pass a version last year but failed, in large part because he and Polis could not agree on terms. And he does not want another year to go by with Colorado last in the nation for child immunization rates.

“We need to start dealing in facts,” said Mullica, who is an emergency nurse working on the frontlines to treat virus patients. “On this issue I feel like science is often times just thrown out the window. … We need to start trusting the experts who spend their lives doing this.”

Of course, the bill will take on new relevance if and when an effective coronavirus vaccine becomes available in Colorado. It could be a year or more away, though scientists in Colorado and around the world are working furiously to produce one as soon as possible.

The Denver Post asked Polis on Friday whether he’s still “pro-choice” on vaccines, and whether he believes nonmedical exemptions to a coronavirus vaccine should be allowed. He twice declined to say whether his feelings have evolved but stressed that he expects that supply of any COVID-19 vaccine will be so limited at first that Colorado won’t be able to get it to everyone who wants to be vaccinated.

Experts say that Colorado needs around 90% to 95% of citizens to be immunized from preventable diseases such as measles and mumps to achieve what’s known as herd immunity. Child measles, mumps and rubella coverage stood at 87.4% in Colorado as of the 2018-19 school year, the Centers for Disease Control reported.

And the state’s already abysmal immunization rates have gone in the wrong direction since the pandemic hit, as staying home has meant many parents have delayed or canceled doctor’s appointments.  From January through March 15, twice as many children 0 to 2 years old were vaccinated as have been vaccinated since then, according to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. About one sixth as many children 3 to 17 years old have been vaccinated since March 15 as in the earlier time period.

This greatly concerns health experts and pro-vaccine lawmakers.

“During a pandemic, it doesn’t mean measles and mumps and other communicable diseases decide to sit on the sideline,” said Priola, who has broken from his GOP colleagues by supporting this bill.

Lawmakers seeking to fix this problem believe a bill that proposes to limit all nonmedical exemptions, including religious ones, is not politically possible right now because of the vociferous opposition to it. Elected Republicans generally support the opponents, and it’s also unclear whether the governor would sign a stronger pro-vaccine bill.

Senate Bill 163 would require parents who want to opt their children out of vaccination to either get a doctor’s permission or take an online vaccine education course. The bill also proposes that the state health department maintain a confidential database with information on students who have opted out, which health officials say would be used to help the state more nimbly respond to outbreaks.

Infectious disease experts and the lawmakers who support Senate Bill 163 say the coronavirus shows how important it is to boost Colorado’s rates, and that it serves as a reminder of how valuable vaccines are.

“We’re seeing what it’s like as a country and as a world to deal with a pandemic,” Mullica said. “This is what it was like before we had vaccines.”

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