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House GOP votes to end flu, whooping cough vaccine rules for foster and adoptive families

A bill to eliminate flu and whooping cough vaccine requirements for adoptive and foster families caring for babies and medically fragile kids is heading to the governor’s desk.

By Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout - March 26, 2024
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Administering vaccine

A bill to eliminate flu and whooping cough vaccine requirements for adoptive and foster families caring for babies and medically fragile kids is heading to the governor’s desk.

Over protests by Democrats, the House GOP on Monday voted to cut off debate over the controversial measure, then voted in favor of it along party lines. If signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee will no longer require parents and other members of a family that wishes to foster or adopt an infant under 18 months old — or a child with significant medical needs – to get the vaccines. 

Rep. Ron Gant, a Republican from Piperton who is sponsoring the bill, said the measure will expand the number of willing adoptive and foster parents in Tennessee to include those with religious or moral objections to the vaccines. 

Gant linked the genesis of the bill to a Tennessee family denied the right to adopt an infant in recent years because they held religious objections to  whooping cough and flu vaccines. The family lives in the district of Sen. Bo Watson, who has called current flu and whooping cough vaccine rules “discriminatory and unfair.” Watson is the bill’s co-sponsor.

“The advantage of this legislation is it expands the eligible pool of families for foster care and adoption, and the state will benefit greatly if we pass this legislation,” Gant said Monday. 

The Department of Children’s Services has raised concern about the bill, saying exposure to disease by unvaccinated family members poses special risks for infants and kids who already have health problems.

“This would also apply to children with special medical needs — so immunocompromised children, children who are vulnerable anyway — so being exposed to those diseases could be severely detrimental to that population particularly,” Sammi Mayfair, DCS’ deputy chief counsel, warned lawmakers in a hearing last month.

DCS officials have also said there is currently no shortage of Tennessee families wishing to adopt or foster infants and babies.

An effort by Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, to amend the bill with an exception for immunocompromised children failed on Monday. Gant told Pearson he was unwilling to go through the process of asking the bill be also amended in the Senate, which voted in favor of the measure last week.

“Maybe next year,” Gant said. 

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, criticized the bill for placing the interests of a potential adoptive and foster parents above the safety of Tennessee’s children.

“I just question whether or not this is absolutely necessary to place these children’s health in danger simply for one instance to which the sponsor referred,” Clemmons said. 

“We have bigger challenges with foster care and adoption in Tennessee, and I would hate to put anybody’s health in jeopardy or life in danger by removing (vaccine requirements) simply because of the convictions of another person,” he said. “The child is our primary interest. Getting that child into a safe environment should be our focus. This seems to put the emphasis on the other side of the equation.”

The bill has potential to jeopardize federal funding, a financial analysis of the bill found.

The Department of Children’s Services receives $252.5 million in federal foster care funding. A condition of receiving the federal dollars is for the state to submit a foster care and adoption plan for approval by the U.S. Health and Human Services department. Those plans must meet guidelines by the Administration for Children and Families that say all infant caregivers must be up-to-date on whooping cough and annual influenza vaccines, and caregivers of kids with medical problems must be up-to-date on flu vaccines.

States that wish to veer from those guidelines must get federal permission. It’s unknown whether the bill, if enacted into law, will be approved by the federal government.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a vaccine-preventable respiratory illness caused by bacteria that is extremely contagious and poses special risks for babies and kids already in poor health.. About a third of infants under a year old who get whooping cough will be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While deaths are rare, they are most likely to occur in infants under 3 months old.

Flu, likewise, poses higher risks for infants and immunocompromised children. Children younger than 6 months old have the highest risk for being hospitalized from flu, according to the CDC.

This story was originally published in the Tennessee Lookout


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