Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Ryan Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2014, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill that protected the right of citizens to file a personal exemption to being vaccinated. The bill was drafted in response to another bill, which would have required exemption seekers to complete an education program outlining the risks associated with not being vaccinated. The bill upheld the right of Colorado residents (and students) to file a vaccine exemption with nothing more than a signature, a standard that has been established for years. Sign on the dotted line, and you can go to school without vaccination.
The law is designed to protect those who actually hold beliefs in opposition to vaccinations. The problem is that those aren’t the only people using it. According to Wardenburg Health Services, even though about one in 13 University of Colorado students has signed a “personal belief” vaccine exemption, only a handful of those students actually have beliefs in opposition to vaccines.
Data compiled by Wardenburg shows that 2,434 active CU students have vaccine exemptions. That’s 8.1 percent of the student population. Of those exemptions, 14 are for students who suffer from medical conditions that make them unable to be vaccinated. Twenty-five are for students who hold religious beliefs that are opposed to vaccinations. The only other reason a student may acquire a vaccine exemption is because they hold other personal beliefs that oppose vaccinations. Therefore, according to the exemption allowances made by Colorado state law, the remaining 2,395 students must be “anti-vaxxers.”
The trouble is that, to the best of our knowledge, they aren’t.
“It really is a handful that say, ‘My parents didn’t vaccinate me and I don’t choose to get vaccinated,’” said Alexis Cook, patient services supervisor and student insurance coordinator at Wardenburg Health Center. “When personal belief exemptions are being done, they’re not necessarily being done because they don’t believe in vaccination; I believe it’s because they don’t want to go through the hassle of finding the paperwork, or have tried and were unsuccessful.”
After the paperwork, there’s the cost. For a student who is not covered by CU Student Gold insurance, the two required shots of the MMR vaccine add up to a potentially prohibitive $192.
“People are going to make the decision based on, ‘Well I can sign the exemption for free, or I can pay money and get the vaccine,’” Cook said.
Given the data available right now, it is impossible to know for sure how many of the 2,395 CU students with personal belief exemptions actually have personal beliefs that are opposed to vaccines. We do, however, know the following:
- In the state of Colorado today, it takes less time and effort to acquire a vaccine exemption than it does to acquire the necessary MMR vaccine.
- For every CU student who submitted some sort of medical proof that they were unable to be vaccinated, there are about 173 students who got past the vaccine process without submitting any proof at all — personal and religious exemptions require nothing more than a signature.
What does the process actually look like?
Upon arrival at CU, incoming students who don’t already have proof of vaccination have four options:
- Get vaccinated. As stated already, this can be costly. It can also be time-consuming.
- Get a medical exemption. This is only an option if you have an actual medical condition, such as HIV/AIDS, which makes it unsafe for you to be vaccinated. To take this option, under Colorado law a student must submit “certification from a licensed physician or advanced practice nurse that the physical condition of the student is such that one or more specified immunizations would endanger his or her life or health.”
- Sign the space where it says “Religious Exemption.”
- Sign the space where it says “Personal Exemption.”
For options (3) and (4), there are no costs and there is no threat of perjury for lying about your beliefs. Schools are not required to make any effort to find out whether or not the student does actually hold the beliefs in question. Whether the student has been vaccinated or not, they are now compliant and may enroll in classes.
Where does this leave us, then?
To prevent the spread of diseases, most people in a population need to be vaccinated. For example, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a vaccination rate of 92-95 percent is necessary to achieve herd immunity from measles. This doesn’t mean that anywhere between 92 and 95 percent is a safe statistic, though. Some would argue that only pushing for a 100 percent vaccination rate truly eliminates the risk of disease spreading.
While CU’s system of administration makes it impossible to know for sure, CU’s vaccination rate could be as low as 91.9 percent based on its rate of students with exemptions. At 81.7 percent, Colorado also has the lowest kindergarten vaccination rate in the country.
Could Colorado raise its rates?
Yes. California recently tightened up its vaccine laws, removing the options of personal and religious exemptions. Before that bill was passed, though, it was up to individual institutions to protect themselves from disease. Stanford had a particularly interesting way of dealing with this.
Though Stanford didn’t allow for a “personal” exemption, it did allow for a somewhat similar “philosophical” one. Gaining a philosophical exemption wasn’t as simple as signing on a dotted line, though. Students had to demonstrate to a panel that their philosophy was “an established and rational intellectual position shared with others and based on coherent, justifiable philosophical principles.” They had to demonstrate that it was “deeply held and consistently guides and influences [their lives].” And finally, students had to “address ethically the tension between [their] desire not to be immunized and [their] social obligation to participate in creating ‘herd immunity.'”
While Stanford’s method may have left the door open to those who genuinely objected to vaccines, unlike CU’s, it leaves little room for students who may just want an easy way out.
If there were to be a breakout here on CU’s campus, lives could be lost or irreparably changed. If that was the result of people’s beliefs, it would be tragic, but perhaps understandable. But the potential risk presented by this exemption policy is not one of belief, but rather a loophole that pushes the bounds of the CDC’s comfort zone.