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Activists sue health department over vaccine waivers

someone getting a shot
Sanofi Pasteur
Flickr, http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM
The lawsuit says the health department's vaccine waiver policies are unconstitutional

Michigan cut way downon the number of kids with vaccination waivers last year. But now a group of activists, called Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines, is suing the state health departmentover policies that contributed to that decline.  

Starting last year, parents who want to get their kid a vaccination waiver for religious or philosophical reasons can’t just sign a form they get from the school office – these are also called “convenience” waivers. (State health officials say some schools would just have parents sign those forms whenever their child fell behind the vaccine schedule, or if their paperwork wasn’t in yet.)

Now parents can only get those non-medical waivers by sitting through a brief, one-on-oneinformation sessionwith a nurse at their local health department.

That’s an unfunded mandate on local health departments, the lawsuit claims. And the plaintiffs say it’s also unconstitutional, “because they unlawfully infringe on the free exercise of religious beliefs by Michigan citizens, including religious objects to vaccine requirements.”

Joel Dorfman, a dad who’s the only named plaintiff in the suit, says in his personal experience, his information sessions went just fine, and he was able to get his waiver “in about five minutes.” But he still thinks the policy is intrusive and patronizing.

“I received my waiver,” he says. “The question is, what was the benefit of that? What was the purpose of hassling me, of making me leave my work? There are people who hired attorneys to go to their waiver meetings. They were so nervous about signing a document that, in my mind, violates their right to free speech.”

Those waiver forms typically say something along the lines of, “I have been informed that I may be placing my child and others at risk of significant illness,” and that “the child may be subject to exclusion from school, if the local health authority advises exclusion as a disease control,” according toa sample form on the state’s website.

Dorfman says parents are essentially forced to sign those forms, even if they don’t agree with that assessment.

“They don’t think that they’re doing anything that would harm their child,” he says. “In fact, they think the opposite.”

Jennifer Eisner, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says officials can’t comment at the moment.

“We have not reviewed the lawsuit as we have not been served, however we stand by the rules implemented,” she said in an email Friday.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.