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Missouri House debates anti-vaccination rules as COVID-19 cases tumble

Missouri House debates anti-vaccination rules as COVID-19 cases tumble

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Rural Missouri mass vaccination clinic debuts Johnson & Johnson option

Jack Oliver, 87, holds his dog Hairy as he receives his Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at Briggs-Smith Memorial Airport in Memphis, Mo. during a mass vaccination clinic held on Friday, March 5, 2021. "We don't take the flu shot because we never had it," said his wife Maudie Oliver, 84. "But our daughters thought we ought to do it." Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — At the same time new vaccines are helping slow the yearlong spread of a deadly virus, Missouri lawmakers are being asked to relax rules on immunizations.

Under legislation sponsored by Rep. Suzie Pollock, R-Lebanon, immunization requirements would only apply to students in public schools.

The measure, which was debated in a House committee Tuesday, also would allow a student to attend school if he or she can provide evidence of acquired immunity from a disease. And, it would drop certain requirements needed for Missourians to exempt themselves and their families from immunizations.

“We need to rein in our schools and our health departments,” Pollock said.

The debate over immunizations comes after a long decline in new COVID-19 infections, tumbling death tolls and an expected increase in vaccine supply, following White House promises to provide enough vaccine for all willing U.S. adults by the end of May.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson visited a St. Louis vaccination site Thursday and sounded optimistic about getting shots as soon as possible to all residents, even as critics in urban areas have complained that rural parts of the state are getting more than their proportional share.

The average of new daily cases in St. Louis County fell to 136 on Monday after almost topping 850 in November; the city’s average tumbled to about 30 on Monday after almost hitting 200 in November.

So far, more than 1 million Missourians, or 16.4% of the population, have received at least a first dose of vaccine. The vaccination rate in St. Louis County is 15.3%; in St. Louis 10.6%.

Garrett Webb, representing the Missouri chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told members of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee that the legislation would hamper efforts to stave off the spread of deadly diseases.

The Missouri State Medical Association also opposes the measure.

But Pollock said her proposal has strong support. An estimated 500 people submitted written testimony in support of the proposal.

The debate over immunizations in the state Capitol has been underway for at least eight years.

In 2019, for example, Rep. Lynn Morris, R-Ozark, said people should have a choice and not be punished for deciding against vaccinations.

Pollock, who is a cardiovascular invasive specialist, introduced a similar proposal in 2020, but it did not advance after the pandemic brought much of the Legislature’s business to a halt.

At the same time some are concerned about the efficacy and safety of vaccines, Republican Gov. Mike Parson also has unveiled a website aimed at debunking misinformation and rumors, including concerns about getting COVID-19 from the vaccine.

“COVID-19 is not a hoax and neither is the vaccine. It is recommended by medical professionals that you consider getting vaccinated,” the website notes.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Dr. Randall Williams also believes wide distribution of a vaccine will help end the pandemic.

The proposal needs a vote in the committee in order to advance to the full House for further action.

The legislation is House Bill 37.

Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181 @KurtEricksonPD on Twitter kerickson@post-dispatch.com

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