Kentucky Politics

A bill that would expand Kentuckians’ ability to opt out of mandatory vaccinations is advancing in the state legislature, though the measure has been scaled back to still require immunizations for children enrolled in school.

Senate Bill 8 would allow people to opt out if the state creates a requirement for everyone to get vaccinated during a pandemic, as long as they cite their “conscientiously-held beliefs.”

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has not said he will require people to get vaccinated, and Kentucky is a long way from having enough vaccines for everybody who wants them.

Sen. Mike Wilson, a Republican from Bowling Green and sponsor of the bill, said he isn’t opposed to vaccines, but that he’s gotten pushback from constituents worried about being forced to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

“I’m coming to you because I have had numerous people reach out to me who, under the circumstances with COVID, with all the mandates that were coming down from Frankfort, did not want to be made to take the vaccine,” Wilson said.

The measure would apply to adults who object to vaccines as well as parents making decisions about their children, allowing them to refuse immunizations as long as they provide a sworn statement attesting their “conscientiously-held beliefs.”

Current law already allows people to opt out of vaccinations for religious or medical reasons.

Wilson said the most recent version of the bill allows schools to require proof of immunization to enroll.

The bill made the first step on its journey through the Republican-led legislature Wednesday, passing easily out of the state senate’s Health and Welfare Committee following little discussion.

Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a physician from Winchester and the committee’s chair, said he’s not comfortable requiring people to get vaccinated.

Alvarado acknowledged vaccines have played an important role in stemming the spread of diseases, but still said he disagreed with requiring people to be vaccinated.

“This allows an out for an individual, who can hopefully be informed, they can decide whether they want to or not,” he said.

A coalition of 40 industry and advocacy groups, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter late last year to senators urging them to not support the bill.

The letter stated the bill would “put Kentuckians at serious risk of preventable diseases and represents a significant step backwards for public health.”

“Decisions to change the immunization laws should be held to the highest standards of evidence-based scientific deliberation. Our concern is that SB 8 has broad overreaching implications and would result in unintended negative health impacts to all Kentuckians, especially our school-age children and those who are immunocompromised,” the letter stated.

The bill is one of several proposals to ease vaccine requirements in the state, including measures to ban employers and universities from requiring vaccinations.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.