Gov. Kevin Stitt will allow the state health department to make it slightly more complicated for parents to exempt their children from school and child care center vaccinations for non-medical reasons.

Oklahoma State Department of Health officials had proposed a rule requiring parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children for religious or personal reasons to complete a vaccine education session provided by a local health department. It also proposed exemptions expire after sixth grade unless parents renew them before enrolling the child in seventh grade.

Stitt on Wednesday declared that all permanent administrative rules submitted by state agencies from April 2, 2019, through April 1, 2020, are approved and adopted. Wednesday was the deadline for the governor to act on new proposed rules after the Legislature failed to do so during its abbreviated 2020 session.

House Joint Resolution 1040 called for approval of almost all proposed permanent rules, but disallowed those submitted by the health department. It passed in the House by a vote of 69 to 29 but was not taken up in the Senate.

In a letter dated May 27, Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, asked the attorney general if the governor is authorized to disapprove individual proposed rules or if he is required to pass them all.

“Because there is an outstanding request for a formal opinion from the Attorney General to determine what authority the governor has to approve some rules and disapprove others, I have made the decision to allow all rules to go into effect,” Stitt said in a statement. “However, I have concerns with certain rules, and my team and I will review our options to address these rules moving forward.”

The statement does not specify which rules are a concern to the governor. His communications staff did not respond when asked if Stitt favors the new vaccine rules.

Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, a political action committee that promotes vaccine choice, strongly opposed the new rules, saying they discriminate against “vaccine-injured families with forced vaccine propaganda. … Unelected bureaucrats must not be able to operate outside the democratic system of government.”

Vaccine skeptics have successfully fought off efforts in the Legislature and state government to tighten exemptions in recent years.

Oklahoma requires children entering school to be vaccinated for nine diseases, including  measles, chickenpox and polio. Parents can apply for exemptions on medical, religious or personal grounds. Medical exemptions represent the smallest share of school exemptions in the state.  

Oklahoma is one of only 15 states, including Texas and Arkansas, that allow parents to cite personal reasons to exempt their children from immunizations required by schools and childcare centers. They fill out and turn in a form.

The new rules say religious and personal exemptions may be obtained “after receiving an approved brief educational presentation provided by any local county health department regarding the risks associated with not being vaccinated and the benefits vaccinations provide to the individual and the community.”

A key reason driving proposals like these is Oklahoma’s rising numbers and rates of exemptions. In 2018-19, the overall exemption rate for all kindergarteners in the state was 2.6%, up from 2.2% in 2017-18 and 1.9% in 2016-17, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The number of approved vaccine exemptions doubled from 2,417 in 2014 to 5,082 in 2019.

A Health Department spokesman said the 2019-20 kindergarten survey results have been delayed due to the COVID-19 response. Officials plan to submit the information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July and make it publicly available in late August or early September, he said.

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