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Health Department pulls back proposed addition to vaccine list

CASPER — Citing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the state Department of Health has withdrawn a proposal to add a new vaccine to the required list for school children.

The Health Department announced the change Thursday. The proposed changes would’ve made the meningococcal vaccine — which protects against what an expert called a “devastating” and life-threatening disease — a requirement for attendance in public schools. The proposal would’ve also clarified other school requirements and provider agreements.

The department said in its statement that it would reintroduce the proposal “at an appropriate time in a manner that considers the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response.”

“With (the pandemic) consideration in mind, as well as ... hearing concerns from our school partners we did not feel this was the right time to implement a new school requirement,” Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said in an email. “We feel strongly the meningococcal vaccine together with the ACIP-recommended vaccines are extremely important. They help protect individuals and also our loved ones and our communities as a whole.”

The addition of the vaccine had become a politicized issue late last year, when the state Republican Party backed a resolution opposing the addition of the vaccine. Dr. Joseph McGinley, who lead the Natrona County party, called that decision “embarrassing,” “dangerous” and “irresponsible.” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Star-Tribune in a statement late last year that he “appreciated” the interest from the public in the vaccine requirements and said he would review the rules.

On Thursday, Gordon’s spokesman told the Star-Tribune in an email that the governor “supports the Department of Health’s decision in light of COVID-19 and the challenge of implementing the rule changes before the start of the school year.”

A leading national vaccine expert who spoke to the Star-Tribune in December said the vaccine was “highly safe” and a “miracle” that would protect teenagers from a “horrible death.”

The state Republican Party wasn’t the only one who opposed the addition of the vaccine. A lobbying and anti-vaccine group called Wyoming Health Freedom has been an active and frequent critic of the changes and of vaccine requirements in general. The group has more than 1,100 followers on Facebook, which includes Gillette Republican Rep. Scott Clem, who has also taken a critical stance on vaccine requirements.

The group lobbied against the new vaccine requirements. It’s also posted to its Facebook page linking the roll out of 5G cell service to the spread of the coronavirus, a debunked conspiracy theory. Last week, the state posted a notice that the group was delinquent on its tax status.

Wyoming Health Freedom has also shared inflammatory posts to its page. These posts are frequently about vaccines but have also included two images comparing House Speaker Steve Harshman to a Nazi because he didn’t introduce a bill that would’ve barred hospitals from declining to see unvaccinated patients.

Early Thursday afternoon, Wyoming Health Freedom posted a link to the Health Department’s announcement. Before the link was posted, the Star-Tribune sent a request for comment to the group’s Facebook page. The request was seen, according to Facebook, but no member of the group responded Thursday.

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