A Florida governor, Rick Scott, and a state senate president both sponsoring bills that would allow unvaccinated children to attend private schools and daycares has set the stage for a potentially powerful clash with Barack Obama’s former vice-president, Joe Biden, over new GOP protections for vaccine rules.
Biden, who is considering a 2020 presidential bid, was campaigning in Florida on Monday. He was introduced by the Democratic governor of Maine, Janet Mills, who pointed out that that Massachusetts had extended liberal anti-vaccination rules to include unvaccinated students in public schools.
In Maine, a bill granting vaccinations to kindergarteners has passed the legislature and was then sent to the desk of the governor, Paul LePage.
Last year, New Jersey moved to make it mandatory for children to receive the MMR vaccine, which can prevent a number of illnesses, including measles, mumps and rubella. In light of that, in March Biden said that if he were governor, he would not require the vaccinations.
“I think it’s easy to turn around to a parent who has a choice, and say that he or she needs to have that choice,” he said. “It’s harder to say, ‘That’s not right. There is a number of diseases here that we don’t want and we can do something about it.’”
The Florida bill would protect a variety of exemptions – including medical, religious and personal – for students with weakened immune systems or potentially related health issues.
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The Florida bill also removes a minimum age of 10 for children to obtain vaccinations, which would allow children without medical exemptions to attend kindergarten with unvaccinated siblings.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised states to require that students entering kindergarten have been vaccinated before starting school. As of 2017, 22 states require minors to be vaccinated to attend public or private school.
Florida allows a range of exemptions for medically ill children and for children enrolled in state-funded private and religious schools. With the votes of Scott and the senate president, Joe Negron, the state could reduce its stringent vaccine rules for children.
The state Senate has just enough Republicans who favor a wide range of exemptions to pass the Florida bill, 41-33.
The state’s governor, Rick Scott, also backed the legislation. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters
A number of members of the Florida legislature have introduced bills in recent years that allow students to attend schools without vaccines, including Scott, who vetoed legislation after he took office in 2011. Negron is a former venture capitalist who has been in office since 2016.
Joel Landesman, of the Florida Center for Policy Analysis, said the changes would be an opening for Biden to express concern about children who might be harmed or exposed to other diseases after a child who is unvaccinated attends school.
“Even if it’s under a reasonable broad term that doesn’t disqualify all kids from going to school, it is powerful symbolic message in its protections,” Landesman said.
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Although the moves by Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature have attracted political coverage, the proposals do not draw considerable opposition. Landesman said that most parents who may cast a ballot in Florida’s midterm elections are unlikely to oppose the bills, which passed relatively swiftly without major debate.
And he said that several Republican senators – including Negron and, oddly, the powerful Senate president, Joe Negron – are unaware of the measures, which could complicate the Republican’s ability to embrace the issue as he seeks to pose as a conservative.
“Joe Negron personally believes these are good regulations,” Landesman said. “The smartest thing is not to talk about it publicly. The trick is talking about it with Dana Pencer.”
Penser is a Republican lawyer, who leads a committee that directs the way issues are addressed at the Republican National Committee.