Should Michigan make it easier to opt out of school vaccines?


More kindergartners get their shots after the state made it harder to receive a waiver for them. Now, two lawmakers want to go back to the old system, but health officials say doing so is an invitation to trouble.

Michigan, like all states, requires children to be vaccinated to attend school. Beyond public health concerns, the issue is often fraught with emotion –  and it’s up for debate again as state lawmakers consider whether to make it easier for parents to waive the  immunization requirements.

The issue: How tough should it be to opt out of school vaccinations?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Vaccination rates across Michigan

In Michigan, students entering kindergarten must have proof of nine vaccinations – ranging from measles and mumps to chicken pox and tetanus – unless their parents sign a waiver. Most who do so object to the shots on religious or philosophical grounds, including the belief that some immunizations lead to autism.

It was an easy process for years. Sign a form. Give it to school officials. But after a whooping cough outbreak tore through a northern Michigan school in 2014, state health officials changed rules to require parents to meet with a public health official to discuss pros and cons of immunizations to get a waiver.

The impact: Huge.

The newly required meetings with health officials last 15 to 30 minutes, but the rule change prompted a profound drop in the waiver rate, falling one-third to 3.6 percent from 5 percent. That meant about 2,000 more students got the vaccines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies show that the higher the rate of vaccination, the less likely are incidences of infectious disease.

In Plymouth-Canton schools, one of the state’s largest districts, the waiver rate fell to less than 4 percent from nearly 12 percent. In Ann Arbor, it dropped to 2.8 percent from 7.4 percent.

And at Grand Traverse Academy, the site of the whooping cough outbreak, the waiver rate dropped to 7 percent from 21 percent.

The proposal: Go back to the old system.

Two Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to roll back the legislation, return to the previous policy and do away with the meeting with the health official. The bills also would strip local health departments of the authority to remove unvaccinated students from schools where there have been outbreaks.

The legislators, Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township and Rep. Tom Barrett of Pottersville, say the new rules are a “bureaucratic overreach.” The bills, Senate Bills 299 and 300, were introduced last month and haven’t been heard by a committee.

SEARCHABLE DATABASE: What's the vaccination rate in YOUR school?

What the lawmakers say:  The new rules are too cumbersome.

“It was never the intention of the Legislature to see a vaccination opt-out procedure put into place that essentially mandates that parents have to take time off of work to meet with specific people, view videos, or sign inflammatory forms to exert a right they should be able to exercise more simply.” Colbeck said in a statement on his website.

What health officials say: The bills are a huge mistake.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Terri Adams, a registered nurse and the section manager for the state Department of Health and Human Services division of immunization.

She called the drop in the waiver rate “huge progress” and hopes the rate will continue to decline. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccination rates of below 92 percent in schools make it difficult to maintain “community immunity” against measles.

“We don’t want this (legislation) to move forward,” Adams said. “We want our partners and our parents to advocate and work with us to stop this from moving forward.”

What the numbers say: Overall, more than 4,300 of the state’s approximately 109,000 kindergarteners, have vaccination waiver, for a total of 3.6 percent. The rate is higher at private schools, 7.5 percent (compared to 10 percent in 2014.) The rate is 3.3 percent at public (compared to 4.9 percent in 2014.)

Eight kindergarten programs in the state (with at least 25 enrolled students) have a quarter or more students unvaccinated – between 25 percent and 55 percent. At least three are either virtual programs, or partnerships with local homeschool families, in non-traditional classrooms that generally don’t have large numbers of children in regular contact.

On the other hand, more than 400 schools, where more than 24,000 kindergartners attend, had no waiver students.

In 2014, before the policy change, Michigan was one of five states where 5 percent or more of kindergarteners were exempt from vaccinations for nonmedical reasons, according to federal statistics.

What educators say: Tom Mecsey, head of school at Kingsbury Country Day School, a charter in northern Oakland County, said he wishes more of the 36 kindergarteners who attend there were fully vaccinated – 12 are not – but “we respect the right of parents” to choose otherwise.

The school has had no outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses, Mecsey said.

Nor has Plymouth Christian Elementary, where one-third of the 33 kindergarteners are not fully vaccinated. Nathan Bleeker, the school’s principal, called vaccination a “non-issue” for the school, as parents are responsible for the vaccine decision. 

“This only affects parents,” Bleeker said.

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Robert J McElroy, MD
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 9:46am

One would hope that SB 299 and 300 would die without a committee hearing. Childhood diseases are not necessarily benign and without major complications. There are complications to measles for instance--- measles encephalitis and impairment of the immune system for two years following the measles are just two. One of the two major reasons for prolonged life span since the late 19th century are the public health efforts that have occurred including extensive vaccination programs. Hamstringing our public health departments ability to provide information is ill-informed and terrible public policy.

Tue, 05/23/2017 - 12:54pm

Putting your own children and the community at risk by failing to vaccinate your children for no good reason should be AT LEAST TWICE as inconvenient for parents as getting the vaccinations would be. These bills should die without further action, or Senators Colbeck and Barrett should see a premature end to their political careers.

Tue, 05/23/2017 - 2:03pm

The Michigan legislature can pass a law more strict than federal law on FGM in a nanosecond in the aftermath of a bizarre "one off" incident of a Muslim doctor performing an abhorrent procedure on young girls and then contemplate an act on vaccinations that makes 10 million Michiganders less safe. Michigan legislature, let existing civil processes deal with FGM, stop fighting the culture wars and do smart stuff based on fact. Set priorities that positively impact the most people possible - protect me and my family from science deniers and stop being science deniers yourselves. You imperil the state and the world on numerous fronts with your retrograde ideology.

Tue, 05/23/2017 - 8:06pm

".... one off incident..."

Chris, you have no idea if this was an isolated incident. And why shouldn't FGM be a criminal offense? You sound like a FGM apologist.

Michael Kiella
Tue, 05/23/2017 - 4:22pm

It is a questionable moral platform that allows parents to withhold vaccination from their own children, while those very children are protected from potentially devastating disease by herd immunity; the positive actions of other parents.

It is also a questionable moral platform to place other family's children at risk, when unvaccinated children expose pre-vaccinated children to disease.

It is a questionable morality where parents exercise substituted judgement on behalf of their children in the absence of sound medical and epidemiological knowledge.

Sun, 05/28/2017 - 9:09pm

Where you don't seem to see a moral dilemma you maybe being missing a parent’s responsibility for their child and only seeing a responsibility to others.

What if a parents have a child that had no allergies and they allowed a single multi-vaccinations injection and shortly after that the child develops severe [life threatening] food allergies [lifetime of carrying an EpiPen and all the entails]? Where you see no moral dilemma, I see parent placed in an extremely difficult choice.
The dilemma happens when their second child reaches the age for vaccinations; do they risk the outcome their first child had and do they risk the wrath of people, do they subject their child to proven risk to be and be one more of those who are protected by the vaccinations?

Kevin Grand
Wed, 05/24/2017 - 8:30am

So if all vaccines are 100% safe and effective with absolutely no negative side-effects whatsoever (which is the gist that I'm getting from those who want to make it harder for Michigan Parents to get waivers), then why did the federal government create the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986

What's the point for essentially crafting a "Get-out-of-jail-free-card" if your product is as safe as you claim?

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 9:38am

Vaccines are not *100%* safe nor are they 100% effective in every single individual. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Fund was created to compensate the extremely few individuals (around 1 in 1 million vaccine recipients) who have been severely harmed by childhood vaccines. Because immunity can fade with time, "booster shots" and adult vaccination renewals are recommended at certain intervals, eg. 10 years for tetanus, or if a person is traveling to a location where vaccination is not close to universal, eg. measles in Africa and the Middle East. Following medical recommendations about vaccinations protects both the individual who is vaccinated and society at large by creating and maintaining an appropriate level of "herd immunity".

Kevin Grand
Fri, 05/26/2017 - 7:27am

And thank you for making my point.

If a product is not 100% safe and/or effective, there is absolutely no justification in compelling anyone to use it who may have concerns regarding what is will do to their family members..

Tyrannical governments utilize those methods.

Free countries do not.

Sun, 05/28/2017 - 10:53pm


You have provided me with a piece of criteria for assessing a candidate for state office, considering if the candidate hasd demonstrated how they protect the rights of the individual while try to deliver the best results for others.

HOw would you frame that as a question for voters to use when deciding whether to vote for or against a candidate?

David Gorski
Wed, 05/24/2017 - 8:40am

Sadly, Patrick Colbeck is my state senator, and Jeff Noble is my state report. Both support these exceedingly misguided bills. They claim they're not antivaccine and maybe that's true, but they are carrying water for antivaxcine groups promoting these bills under the delusion that they are supporting "freedom." What they're doing in reality is to make measles great again.

Wed, 05/24/2017 - 8:12pm

The willingness of these two dingbats to put innocent children at risk is staggering...I am in awe of their lack of common sense in carrying water for the anti-vacs.....

Lisa, BSN, RN
Thu, 05/25/2017 - 12:15pm

I am a school nurse and have personally felt the impact of a vaccine preventable disease outbreak. I survived the pertussis outbreak of 2014-2015. It would be so misguided to step back and make it easier for parents to obtain a waiver. Before the new regulations parents simply signed their name to opt out! Those parents who feel strongly enough can still get their waiver from the local health department. Those parents who just want the easiest way to comply will be more likely to get their children vaccinated. Making waivers more difficult to obtain has been proven to increase vaccination rates and herd immunity and help keep our children, schools, and communities healthy. For the sake of our children I hope the bills die in committee.

David Clemo
Sat, 05/27/2017 - 1:33pm

Why we are even having a discussion about approving child abuse is beyond me.
I would hate to see it happen, but when we have an epidemic of Polio, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, etc., then these misguided parents will understand why we need to have our shots!
When I was growing up, every summer brought on Polio. Polio hasn't "disappeared". It's just waiting to meet a child who hasn't been vaccinated.
If I had small children, I would make a list of those in school who are not vaccinated and not let them play with my kids. Perhaps we need to have separate classrooms for the vaccinated and not vaccinated

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 11:30am


If your child were vaccinated wouldn't that mean they are protected from those not vaccinated?

As I recall when the polio vaccination was first administered is was designed to protect those being vaccinated, and it proved effective. Wasn't that also true of smallpox? If vaccination are to protect those that are vaccinated why should we be so fearful of those not vaccinated?

I wonder if non vaccinated people are such a threat then shouldn't we ensure that all non-vaccinated people be prevented from entering the country?

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 12:53pm

If you can't make time for one 15-30 minute meeting, you didn't have strong views on it to begin with. The new regulations are easy to comply with, except for the exceedingly lazy, which I guess includes these two legislators.

Tue, 06/13/2017 - 10:07am

This does not mean more people got vaccines for their children. People move out of MI. People don't want to be bullied so go to private or homeschool. I know of NO ONE who vaccinated their children because of the waiver. Those that chose to not vaccinate, stand against family and friends who disagree. They are not going to cave at the prospect of meeting with a nurse. Give me a break.

Donna Fisher
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:35am

No one should be permitted to opt out of vaccinations unless there is medical exigency such as allergy to an ingredient that proves it would be detrimental or lethal to their own health . Public health cannot be maintained if the majority of the population does not avail itself of vaccinations to prevent epidemics of diseases that kill entire populations.

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