AUGUSTA, Maine — A brief debate broke out among legislative leaders over a proposed bill declaring that vaccinations cannot be mandatory, on the same day that Maine’s public health director announced that swine flu has been confirmed in all 16 of the state’s counties.
Over the past week, swine flu has gone from being limited mostly to central and southern parts of the state to having been confirmed in all corners of Maine. At least 25 schools are reporting high absentee rates due to swine flu, and 10 Mainers have been hospitalized with the disease.
“There is not a part of the state that is not affected by H1N1,” Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday.
While H1N1 vaccines continue trickling into the state, the numbers are well below what officials would like to see, said Mills. By the end of the week, the state will have received a total of 139,000 doses of swine flu vaccine, enough for only one in five people in high priority groups, she said.
As school immunization programs continued, a brief verbal skirmish broke out in the State House over whether to permit the introduction of a bill to state clearly that immunizations cannot be mandatory. State officials have said that the current swine flu program is completely voluntary.
By a 6-4 vote, legislative leaders rejected a proposal advanced by Rep. Douglas Thomas, meaning he can’t introduce it during the session that resumes in January.
In his appeal to lawmakers, who had rejected his bill last month, Thomas said he did not want to discourage the ongoing vaccination program. But he believes the state law over such programs needs to be clarified so it definitively outlaws mandatory shots.
“Let’s make it perfectly clear. It’s easy,” said Thomas, R-Ripley, adding that the bill would ease lingering concerns among many Mainers.
His request drew support from Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who said, “I can’t see the downside being that we are facing a pandemic.”
But Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, said state law already details the rules for administering vaccinations.
For her part, Mills said she knows of no state law that allows health officials to mandate H1N1 vaccines involuntarily.
In the event the governor declares an extreme public health emergency, health officials may order vaccinations if necessary to prevent disease transmission, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Such an order is subject to judicial review.