Two weeks out, vaccine referendum stirs statewide debate

In May of 2019, Maine’s State Senate passed a law eliminating religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions in reaction to alarmingly low state-wide immunization rates among young children. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that Maine’s vaccine-exemption rate hit 6.2%, the state’s highest number in over a decade. Most of these exemptions were for nonmedical reasons.  

The bill, L.D. 798, has two major stipulations: First, by 2021, all children enrolled in Maine’s school system must receive all mandated vaccinations; second, only medical issues may exempt students from their shots. 

Controversy quickly ensued following the bill’s signage into law. Some believed that this was not an issue of health but rather of parental rights. Others harbored anti-vaccine beliefs, which lead them to oppose the law. 

After collecting nearly 100,000 signatures, ‘Mainers for Health and Parental Rights,’ the group that opposes the law, secured a potential ‘people’s veto,’ meaning that the measure will appear on the Mar. 3 primary ballot. 

If most voters choose ‘Yes’ on Question 1, they will repeal L.D. 798, allowing for the continuance of non-medical vaccine exemptions in Maine; if most vote ‘No,’ the law will remain. 

Gov. Janet Mills urged Maine’s citizens to vote ‘No,’ and as of Feb. 17, Mainers for Health and Parental Rights has raised over $366,000, while Maine Families for Vaccines PAC, which leads the ‘No’ Campaign, has raised over $108,000.

The Echo sat down with Colby biology lab instructor Sarah Staffiere, an outspoken leader of the ‘No on 1’ Campaign. Since the bill’s introduction into Maine’s state Legislature, Staffiere has vocally supported L.D. 798, even testifying at the bill’s public hearing last February. 

“It was an issue that hits very close to home for my family,” Staffiere said. “My son was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition at age three. His disorder and treatment put him at significant increase for complications from many vaccine preventable diseases. Additionally, his life-saving treatment reduces the effectiveness of some of his vaccines.” 

To protect her son, Staffiere depends on herd immunity, which prevents those whose immune systems are compromised from contracting life-threatening diseases. The state’s high vaccine-exemption rate threatens Maine’s herd immunity. 

“Maine has the 4th highest opt-out rate in the nation. We lead the nation in whooping cough infections,” Staffiere said. “The number of parents choosing to skip vaccines is now putting our schools and students in danger because the rate has gone beyond what is considered safe for herd immunity.” 

In an email to the Echo, Cara Sacks, campaign manager of ‘Yes on 1 to Reject Big Pharma,’ explained her organization’s efforts and history. Sacks said that the campaign “was started by parents and concerned citizens: regular Mainers who were concerned about what we saw happen in Augusta during the legislative phase.” Sacks also characterized L.D. 798 as a “massive government overreach.” 

She continued, writing that “this law is detrimental to all Mainers, but especially so to those who wish to receive an education of any kind including at the college level. It allows the state to mandate a medical intervention (in this case vaccination) in exchange for that education, and removes the right for the individual to opt out for any reason of even one dose of a required vaccine.”

Staffiere explained, however, that “this [law] can benefit other members of our communities [outside of the immunocompromised in schools] who are at high risk: the elderly, babies too young to be vaccinated, people undergoing treatment for cancer, those who have had an organ transplant.” If voters decide to repeal L.D. 798, Staffiere fears the consequences. 

“The best public health policies prevent emergencies rather than respond to them. Once an outbreak occurs or children are becoming infected, we as a community have failed to do the very basic job of protecting children,” Staffiere said. “We already have outbreaks of whooping cough ripping through our schools. I am fearful to think [about] what is next.”

According to Sacks, however, “this law is particularly detrimental to those Mainers wishing to access daycare for their children. The daycare required ]vaccine] schedule is rigorous. Many parents today do a selective or delayed vaccine schedule because there are so many vaccines on the CDC recommended schedule (69 doses by the age of 18). Parents would not be allowed to delay or space out their infants/toddlers schedule if they wish to send their child to daycare.” 

 If Question 1 passes, Sacks argues that no consequences should follow, since Maine already mandates that students receive vaccines before entering school or daycare. If Question 1 fails, Sacks fears that families and businesses will leave the state, ultimately damaging Maine’s education system and economy.

Along with Staffiere, the Echo asked Deborah Deatrick MPH (Master of Public Health) about her views on the issue. She has been a key leader in the ‘No’ Campaign and recently retired as Senior Vice President for Community Health from MaineHealth, the state’s largest health system. 

Deatrick believes the ‘Yes’ Campaign’s slogan of ‘Reject Big Pharma’ “is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public by riding on the coattails of anti-pharma sentiment resulting from the opiate crisis and stories about price-gouging on drugs like insulin.” 

Deatrick explained how pharmaceutical companies earn essentially no profit from vaccines used in Maine. She sits on the Maine Vaccine Board, a committee dedicated to providing Maine children with the least expensive vaccines possible. 

Sacks emphatically rejects this accusation of deception: “We are not misleading voters. Big Pharma is at the root of this issue in working nationwide to pass mandate laws across the country,” Sacks said. “They absolutely profit from the sale of vaccines and they lobbied to get this law passed in our own Maine legislature.” 

Deatrick, however, went on to describe the importance of herd immunity for the wellbeing of the population. If lost, preventable diseases may resurface. 

“Herd immunity happens when a large enough proportion of the population (usually 95%) is immune or protected from getting a deadly disease because they have been vaccinated. In other words, herd immunity keeps our society healthy and vaccines create herd immunity,” Deatrick said.  “Over six % of kindergarten students in Maine are not immunized against seven infectious diseases (measles, pertussis, mumps, chicken pox, rubella, polio, and diphtheria). That means the rate of herd immunity is not high enough to provide protection to these children.” 

In some of Maine’s counties, Deatrick said that the vaccine-exemption rates are over nine %, which is dangerously high. Like Staffiere, Deatrick fears a scenario in which voters repeal the law. 

“Should the law be repealed, there will be ongoing efforts to address Maine’s growing problem with communicable disease outbreaks– we currently have one of the worst rates of pertussis in the U.S. and with other deadly and communicable diseases, like the coronavirus, knocking on our doorstep,” she said.

The Echo reached out to campus political organizations as well. In an email, the Colby College Democrats affirmed their support of the ‘No’ Campaign.

 “We believe the law, L.D. 798, is a crucial step in promoting equitable access to and administration of vaccinations and other key public health services,” the Colby Democrats stated. “We stand firmly in favor of the ‘No on 1’ campaign, and in opposition toward the ‘Yes on 1’ campaign.”

 Similar to Staffiere and Deatrick, the Colby Democrats find the ‘Yes’ Campaign’s slogan misleading. 

“While we recognize the very real concerns regarding the need to regulate Big Pharma and combat corruption in the biotech industry, these concerns are not relevant to the issue at hand,” the Colby Democrats said. “Tightening mandates on vaccinations, as delineated by L.D. 798, is absolutely fundamental in safeguarding and promoting the health of Maine citizens, and we believe that the referendum posed by Question 1 reopens an unnecessary debate with incredibly dangerous implications for public health in Maine.”

They believe it is important  “to remember that schoolchildren, as well as employees of nursery schools and healthcare facilities, would be most susceptible to public health threats if the referendum results in L.D. 798 being overturned.” 

The Echo reached out to the Colby College Republicans, but received no response.