ELLSWORTH — On Tuesday, voters in Hancock County and statewide decided to keep a law that eliminates non-medical opt-outs for childhood vaccinations, joining California, Mississippi, West Virginia and New York, all of which have passed similar legislation.
Roughly 67 percent of the 17,549 voters who cast ballots in Hancock County voted to keep the new law, while the rest (33 percent) voted to reject it.
Statewide, with 81 percent of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning, 73 percent of voters decided to keep the law.
Under the new law, slated to go into effect on Sept. 1, 2021, children will be required to get vaccines before they attend school unless they are granted a medical exemption.
Students who are covered under an individualized education plan will be allowed to keep their religious or philosophical exemption status and attend school “as long as an appropriate medical professional provides a statement that the medical professional has provided information on the risks and benefits associated with the choice to immunize,” according to the law.
It also expands the list of those who can issue medical exemptions from physicians to include nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants.
High school seniors in Hancock County had some of the highest exemption rates in the state last year, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (It’s worth noting that some of the schools are very small, so in some cases a very high percentage of unvaccinated children may only represent a handful of students.)
Many Hancock County residents testified in opposition to the law at a public hearing last March.
But in the end, most municipalities in the county voted by a large margin to keep the law, with 75 percent of voters in Bar Harbor, 62 percent in Ellsworth and 69 percent in both Blue Hill and Bucksport casting a “no” vote on Question 1.
The margins were less decisive in Sullivan and Hancock, with 58 percent voting to keep the law.
The law has been contentious from the beginning, clearing the Senate by a single vote. State Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County) initially joined the chamber’s 14 Republicans in supporting an amendment that would have preserved religious exemptions, but ultimately voted in support of the final bill, which scrapped the amendment.
It remains to be seen whether the new law will increase vaccination rates in Maine. California passed the country’s first law eliminating non-medical exemptions in 2015, but studies of the law published by the National Institutes of Health and in the Annals of Internal Medicine have found that while vaccine rates did increase in the first two years after the bill was passed, from 92.8 to 95.1 percent, medical exemptions also increased dramatically, especially in regions of the state that previously had higher philosophical or religious exemption rates.
One study estimated that the percentage of children who remain unvaccinated will be roughly 1.87 percent in 2027, compared to what would have been 2.36 percent without the law.
When California removed nonmedical exemptions, “it also relaxed the requirements for medical exemptions and exempted students in non-classroom-based learning environments from vaccination requirements,” according to Paul Delamater, one of the lead authors of a study out of the University of North Carolina. “Because of these provisions in SB277 and persistent vaccine hesitancy in California, the law’s effect has been and will continue to be limited.”