Published 8:30 a.m. | Updated 11:40 a.m.
Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order Thursday to outline policies he hopes will increase Colorado’s kindergarten vaccination rate while at the same time, as he describes it, “honor the rights of parents.”
Polis said he believes the steps he’s requesting will reverse what he sees as a lack of substantial progress in the previous decade to improve the state’s vaccine rate. The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Colorado has the lowest kindergarten vaccination rate for measles-mumps-rubella in the country.
“One of our goals is, of course, improving measles, mumps, rubella immunization rates specifically,” Polis said. “As more and more areas have had outbreaks of measles, we want to do our best to decrease the probability or the severity of that kind of outbreak here in Colorado.”
Building on existing efforts, the executive order directs the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to work with communities to determine the root causes behind low rates in some areas and better understand parent’s motivations. It encourages the use of standardized exemption forms, and would more widely distribute data on vaccination rates in K-12 schools and child care centers.
Educational efforts and more research are included alongside the governor’s policy prescriptions.
Additionally, the order aims to help the health care industry improve the information it gives parents. Incentives are also to be set up to encourage Medicaid providers to work in underserved areas to improve vaccination rates.
The governor’s office says CDPHE will use existing funds to try to achieve these objectives, but eventually, more state money will be needed to implement all of the strategies. There’s no specific price tag yet.
Polis set the goal for Colorado at a 90 percent MMR Kindergarten vaccination rate by next year — and 95 percent by 2023. Right now, it’s 87 percent
“We will have a report back to us in 12 months and we expect to see steady progress,” Polis said. “And then every six months thereafter to make sure that we are moving in the right direction and moving fast enough to save lives and save people money on health care.”
One thing the executive order doesn’t do is push to tighten Colorado’s vaccine exemption process, something public health professionals have actively sought through legislative changes.
Opposition To His Party’s Vaccination Bill
The executive order follows on the heels of a contentious vaccine debate last legislative session in which Polis did not back a Democratic vaccine measure dealing with exemptions.
House Bill 19-1312 would have made it less convenient to get a non-medical exemption by requiring parents to initially submit a form in-person to the state or local health department. Right now, forms can be returned to the child’s school. The measure ultimately failed in the state senate and Polis had said he wouldn’t sign it.
Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica of Thornton, an emergency room nurse, was the bill’s main sponsor. He said the idea was “born out of a desire to keep schools and Coloradans safe.” At first, he wanted to introduce a bill to ban non-medical exemptions for school children. He then floated the idea that parents would have to turn in the form in-person annually, not just once.
“We worked hard to put policy in place that would improve our immunization rates and decrease the risk of vaccine-preventable disease,” he said of trying to strike the right balance. “The end result was disappointing, but I remain committed to working to protect the health of Coloradans.”
Opponents of the bill argued it was an overreach and could set the state on the course to banning non-medical exemptions altogether. Only three states ban non-medical exemptions: Mississippi, California and West Virginia.
Colorado Health Choice Alliance, a group that opposes government vaccination requirements, lobbied strongly against the measure and brought large crowds to testify in opposition at public hearings.
“It’s always the Democrats here and nationwide who are pushing for Draconian measures, which as a lifelong Democrat myself, we’re the ones that are supposed to stand up for freedom and human rights and stand up against big industry,” said Phil Silberman, one of the Health Choice Alliance’s founders.
Silberman praised Polis for listening and “respecting parents’ rights” during the debate. At one point last session Silberman helped facilitate a phone call between the governor and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading voice in the anti-vaccine movement.
“I had no idea what [the governor’s] thought process was at that time,” Silberman said, “and was hoping to be able to obviously influence that thought process to understand some of the bigger issues and bigger picture.”
Kennedy’s group, Children’s Health Defense, claim vaccines contribute to increasing rates of autism, epilepsy and other autoimmune diseases. Those positions are rejected by the vast majority of public health professionals.
Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado, found it “a little bit problematic that [Kennedy] was able to get an audience” with Gov. Polis. But O’Leary said he understands that talking to various stakeholders is part of the governor’s job.
At the same time, he thinks Polis understands the seriousness of what’s happening in the state.
“I've never spoken with the governor, but from everything I've seen, he does seem truly committed to public health and prevention and improving our vaccination rates in Colorado. And I think that's great,” he said.
For his part, Polis said he believes in the science and public health research on vaccines, but he also has concerns about making it harder for parents to exempt their children.
“It's really about mutual respect and it's about not forcing other people to live the lives that you would have for your own kids and grandkids,” said Polis, who noted that his own two young children have been vaccinated. The governor also said that speaking to RFK Jr. didn’t influence his views.
“This isn't anything I've really changed my opinion on or shifted on in years. It's just sort of a fundamental value I have, for decades. I don't think that the government should come between the health care choices that people make and their doctors,” Polis said.
He added that this belief is why he supports access to abortion and the ability of Christian Scientists to opt-out of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. And, he concluded, “it's why, of course, I don't believe that people should be forced to get vaccinated at the point of a gun.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify the Colorado Health Choice Alliance's position on vaccines.