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Maine House and Senate reject bills carving out exemptions for school-mandated vaccines

The Maine State House is seen at dawn from Capitol Park on Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
The Maine State House is seen at dawn from Capitol Park on Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Maine lawmakers rejected several bills Thursday that were backed by critics of Maine's vaccination policies.

Three of the bills that failed in the Democratic-controlled House aimed to once again allow parents to exempt their children from mandatory school vaccinations for religious and philosophical reasons. Two years ago, Maine voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have restored those exemptions.

The House and the Senate also voted largely along party lines to reject bills that tried to block public schools or colleges from requiring vaccines — such as the one for COVID-19 — that received federal approval under “emergency use authorizations.”

State Sen. Joe Baldacci, a Bangor Democrat, said disinformation campaigns against vaccinations divided the country and harmed public health.

"The vaccine has saved millions of lives and when we put out misinformation or statements that only serve to scare people without faces, we're not doing justice to the people of Maine and we are not serving our citizens well," he said.

Maine currently requires children to receive vaccines for nine infectious diseases to attend public K-12 schools. Those include vaccinations against measles, mumps, polio and chicken pox, but not COVID-19. The University of Maine System, meanwhile, strongly encourages vaccination against COVID-19 but no longer requires it to live or attend classes on campus.

Maine had among the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country as well as a low death rate, despite having the oldest population in the country. But as in other states, the imposition of workplace vaccination requirements as well as the limited number of government-initiated mandates in the state — such as the vaccination requirement for health care workers — angered some residents. It also provided fuel to the small but vocal population of vaccine skeptics in the state who had tried but failed to reinstate religious and philosophical exemptions during the 2020 ballot initiative.

Testimony on the bills during the public hearing included emotional, firsthand accounts from young adults who say the vaccination mandates harmed their educational development as well as their ability to play sports, join clubs or stay connected with classmates. But some of those who testified also delved deeply into false claims about the health risks of COVID-19 vaccines and conspiracy theories that the vaccination push was part of a secret, global campaign to control the population or even global genocide.

Sen. Lisa Keim, D-Dixfield, was among the bill sponsors and advocates who talked on Thursday about “medical freedom” and how mandates infringe on parental rights.

“We don’t know what the future holds but another pandemic is easily envisioned,” Keim said on the Senate floor. “Maine must provide protections in law to show we have our eyes wide open to the serious limitations of the medical industry and the government. We must enact laws that recognize the value of education while protecting parents rights to direct the health care of their children. Maine people should not be forced to trust Big Pharma or the government with health care decisions.”

But state Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, called vaccines “the greatest public health intervention ever developed [that has] saved more lives, including of children, in the history of medicine.”