At the beginning of the year, as California was battered by its largest Covid surge yet, state lawmakers formed a vaccine working group that would craft legislation focused on slowing the spread of the coronavirus and other diseases.
Over the next several weeks, the group announced an ambitious slate of Covid-related bills, including some vaccine mandates, that immediately drew fervent opposition. It came as Gov. Gavin Newsom was softening his approach to the pandemic and after school districts had struggled to implement vaccine mandates of their own.
So far, none of the working group’s bills have made it through the Legislature. And, with the legislative session ending on Aug. 31, the deadline for them to become law is approaching.
Already, the three most controversial bills from the working group have been shelved. One would have required all schoolchildren to get the Covid vaccine, and another would have made all employees in California show proof of Covid vaccination. A third would have required that local law enforcement officials enforce public health orders.
Covid case rates have fallen from their winter peak and the public’s attention has turned away from the pandemic.
In January, 19% of California adults named Covid as the most important issue for the governor and Legislature to work on, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll taken just as the first Omicron wave caused cases to spike. That was the top priority for survey respondents at the time.
By May, Californians had shifted their attention to other concerns. A mere 2% of poll respondents said Covid was their top priority, well behind inflation, housing, homelessness and gas prices.
The working group’s remaining bills under consideration include proposals to require schools to create official Covid testing plans; update the state’s immunization registry; and designate the promotion of Covid misinformation by doctors as unprofessional conduct.
The most controversial of the bills still in play is Senate Bill 866. Introduced by State Senators Scott Wiener and Richard Pan, it would allow children 15 and older to be vaccinated, including against Covid-19, without a parent’s consent or knowledge. The first version of the bill proposed an age limit of 12, but its authors raised it to garner more support.
The legislation, which supporters say will make it easier for teenagers to get their Covid shots and other recommended vaccines, has elicited death threats against Wiener, The Los Angeles Times reports. Wiener, from San Francisco, may be called to testify next month against a San Ramon man who has been charged with multiple felonies for criminal threats against him, the newspaper reported.
Vaccine bills are often among the most contentious in the California Legislature, and those opposed to this one say it would strip parents of oversight of their teenagers.
“There are a lot of decisions we guide kids through as they are maturing, especially during this time when we have seen a lot of pressure to get vaccinated,” said Sharon McKeeman, who’s part of a parent coalition based in San Diego that opposes masks and vaccine mandates, as reported by CalMatters. “That’s why they can’t drive or drink alcohol or join the military until they get to a certain age. Because there is a level of maturity that goes along with decisions that are unalterable.”
The biggest impacts of the bill are more likely to be in reducing administrative hurdles to vaccination, said Pan, a pediatrician who has long been a champion of vaccines.
He said that children whose parents are working often come to the doctor with an older sibling or other relative, and then are unable to get the vaccines for which they had scheduled the appointment. He added that the S.B. 866 wouldn’t allow children to do anything without adult supervision.