The Department of Public Health and Human Services heard public comment on Thursday about a proposed rule change that would loosen vaccination requirements at childcare centers.
Under the new rule, children attending childcare care centers would be able to obtain a religious exemption for vaccinations against diseases like polio and measles. Additionally, the rule would eliminate vaccination requirements for staff and volunteers who work at the centers.
In the hour-long meeting held over Zoom, dozens of individuals spanning from doctors to public health officials to parents testified against the rule, saying it would put children at increased risk for contracting deadly diseases and lower the ability to fight back in the case of an outbreak. No one testified in support of the rule.
Allison Drake, a program specialist for DPHHS, said at the meeting the new rule was necessary to bring childcare centers into compliance with two laws passed during the most recent legislative session that allowed for expanded religious exemptions and prohibited discrimination based on vaccination status.
“The department intends for these changes to provide consistency for parents and guardians as children transition from child care facilities to school,” Drake said. She continued, “Parents and guardians determine the childcare settings that best suit the needs of their children.”
She also said that eliminating vaccination requirements would help ease staffing troubles at childcare centers.
“The department proposes to remove staff vaccination requirements; the department believes this change will reduce workforce challenges,” she said.
Martin Finnegan, a parent who testified on Thursday said in general, he likes it when the government keeps to itself, but said the proposed rule change could put his kids at risk.
“I believe government should keep its nose out of our business. But there’s an important exception to that. And that’s when one person’s exercise of their freedom affects another person’s freedom,” he said. Adding, “My kids could be in that same daycare, and you’re putting them at risk.”
Marian Kummer, a retired pediatrician, testified on behalf of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and said extending religious exemptions to childcare settings will result in lower immunization rates for children in child care.
“The diseases that are covered by immunizations are more deadly in this population. Therefore, it is imperative that they be protected as much as possible,” she said.
Using measles as an example, she said 95% of the population to be immunized to prevent outbreaks and said, “this will not occur if we allow religious exemptions.”
Pediatrician Kathy Rogers agreed.
“The changes suggested will increase risk of infectious disease and the youngest and the very vulnerable population of infants and children,” she said. “And these changes will become obstructions to parents whose primary aim is to keep their child or children safe in a daycare setting.”
Lisa Casper, executive director of the Association of Montana Public Health Officials, also spoke out against the rule.
“By adding non-medical exemptions and removing staff immunization requirements, the department is posing incredible health risks within child care settings on babies who have not yet completed their vaccine schedule and to children who are immunocompromised,” she said. “Every exemption diminishes herd immunity, which is so critical to our youngest children and therefore the safety of licensed child cares.”