Editorials, Opinion

Science prevails as Gov. Justice vetoes vax exemption bill

On Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice made the right decision and vetoed HB 5105, which would have exempted virtual public school students from vaccine requirements and allowed private and parochial schools to set their own requirements. (The Catholic Church already announced it would keep with existing vaccine requirements if the law did pass.)

Despite the backlash from a vocal minority (like the legislator who threatened an even worse bill next time), Justice decided to listen to the concerns and wisdom of the medical community. Right now, West Virginia has some of the most stringent vaccine requirements in the nation for children entering school or daycare. It also means that we have one of the lowest rates of childhood vaccine-preventable diseases in the country.

There’s a lot West Virginia does wrong. This is one thing we do right, and Justice made the correct decision to keep our vaccine standards in place.

Part of living in a society is finding the balance between personal freedoms and societal good: Where do our rights end and someone else’s begin? It’s why we have laws and regulations, particularly around health and safety. For example, you have the right to earn money — but not to hurt someone else to get it. You have the right to drive on public roads — but not to drive recklessly or so fast that you become a danger to others.

Vaccines are like that. They aren’t just for your personal protection. They are also for your community’s protection. Herd immunity — when 70%-95% of a population is immune to a disease, which keeps the spread very low — is essential for protecting people who cannot receive a vaccine (e.g., too young, allergic to the vaccine or immune system too compromised). These vulnerable individuals depend upon the rest of us to do the right thing. By getting vaccinated, we protect them and ourselves.

The childhood diseases like measles, mumps and polio that West Virginia children must be vaccinated against are all highly contagious and, at one point in time, very deadly. Health experts estimate immunization against measles must be around 95% of a population to achieve herd immunity; for polio, it’s about 85%. When inoculation rates fall below those thresholds, outbreaks occur, like the ones we’re seeing in Florida and California. And such outbreaks always lead to the possibility that someone — usually a young child, an older adult or someone with a weakened immune system — could die from an otherwise preventable illness.

For decades, no one batted an eye at childhood vaccines. Perhaps the specter of child deaths and disfigurements still haunted the nation. But as measles and pertussis and polio became rarer, they turned into the stuff of boogeyman tales: Little more than stories meant to frighten, rather than a real and still looming threat.

And that opened the door for the anti-vax movement. After all, it’s easier to believe you don’t need those needle pokes when the consequences aren’t staring you in the face. For years, anti-vaxxers were a small but vocal group that wasn’t ignored by the general populace, per se, but neither was it indulged.

Then COVID hit, and all the uncertainty, fear and misinformation around disease exploded into a massive movement against the medical establishment’s recommendations for treatment and prevention. Lockdowns, quarantines and mask mandates sparked a “personal freedom” backlash. And that fear, uncertainty and defiance — with some help from dedicated anti-vaxxers and the easy spread of misinformation online — evolved into a large-scale, full-blown pushback against all vaccines.

With his veto, Justice has shown he understands where that line in is between personal freedom and societal good — and childhood vaccines are an undeniable societal good.