What Clark County’s public health officer had to say about two state senators vaccine bill speeches

Since Clark County saw an outbreak of measles in early 2019, Dr. Alan Melnick, who serves as Public Health director and Clark County health officer, has frequently had to turn his attention toward pushing back against questionable claims made about vaccinations.

Now, he’s pushing back on the claims made by two state senators.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill removing the personal exemption for the requirement that children receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination. Republicans in the chamber had a lot to say about the legislation. That included Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who both cast “no” votes after speaking against the bill.

Sen. Ann Rivers speaking on the Senate floor.

Sen. Ann Rivers speaking on the Senate floor.

During the floor debate Rivers suggested that the outbreak had been overstated.

“To develop a frame of reference for the massive outbreak in Washington state, it was located in one church in Southwest Washington,” she said. “It is over; it is done.”

She said that the disease was brought in from Eastern Europe and caused what she described as an “inbreak,” not an outbreak. She said that “no children were ever at school to spread the disease.” She also said that the Department of Health sent police to a home to make sure that babies were safe, which she found objectionable considering many in the Eastern European community had left authoritarian countries for the U.S.

“First of all, there is no such thing as an ‘inbreak,’” said Melnick. “It’s not a public health term.”

He said the term makes no sense because communicable diseases don’t respect geographic, political or economic boundaries because they spread to people who are susceptible to contracting it, specifically people who aren’t immunized.

“The outbreak was not, and I’m going to repeat, it was not confined to a church,” said Melnick. He said that while a church was a transmission site there were other exposure sites, including schools.

He said that while the first case Clark County Public Health became aware of came from Ukraine, the epidemiological investigation didn’t conclude that it was the cause of the outbreak. He added that the genotype of measles associated with the Clark County outbreak was from Eastern Europe but is also present in the U.S., and is completely preventable by vaccines.

Melnick did confirm that a law enforcement officer accompanied a nurse visiting a family with measles. He said the decision to send the officer was “based on language the family had used and we were concerned about the safety of staff.” He said the officer’s presence wasn’t intended to threaten or intimidate the family. He said that the officer stayed outside while the nurse completed their visit.

During the floor debate, Republicans brought up the idea that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinations over potentially adverse effects. On the Senate floor, Rivers said that she did her own research and talked to doctors in preparing for the vote. She said that researchers are learning about DNA and how it could reveal that some patients are more likely to have adverse reactions to vaccines.


Sen. Lynda Wilson speaking on the Senate floor

Sen. Lynda Wilson speaking on the Senate floor

As the bill has progressed others have made similar arguments and Wilson also made the point saying the science wasn’t settled on the effects of vaccines.

“I haven’t seen anything in the scientific literature that backs that up at all,” said Melnick. “That sounds like it’s straight out of the anti-vaxxer playbook.”

He said that genetic predispositions would have been revealed while the vaccine has been given to millions of people over a period of decades. He did say that some people have rare immunodeficiencies, but that’s different.

As for adverse effects of vaccines, Melnick said they are rare. He also said that there is often no evidence of cause and effect between a vaccine and an adverse reaction.

After the bill passed Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said in a statement to The Washington Post that she was disappointed to “hear colleagues across the aisle share their constituents’ unsubstantiated Internet theories over the expert knowledge of our country’s best medical minds at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

But the bill almost didn’t make it to the Senate floor for a vote by the required legislative cutoff.

The bill was brought to the Senate floor Wednesday night. Cleveland, who shepherded the bill through the chamber, told The Columbian that it was unclear if it had in fact been read into the Senate floor. She said the matter was scrutinized by lawyers for both the Democratic and Republican caucuses and Senate leaders had to play back TVW coverage before Sen. Karen Keiser, who was presiding over the chamber, made the call that it been properly introduced.

“Never in a million years would I believe that we need an instant replay,” said Cleveland.

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