PORTLAND — Mainers are mulling whether to toss aside a law that eliminates most exemptions for childhood vaccinations against the backdrop of a global rush to contain a virus for which there is no vaccine.

Some voters say the COVID-19 virus that’s spreading — and the rush to develop a vaccine — could cause undecided Mainers to err on the side of keeping the stricter vaccine law, which eliminates philosophical and religious exemptions.

“It brings it home and into reality for those who may be on the fence,” said Brandon Mazer, of Portland, who supports the law.

The People’s Veto referendum on Tuesday would undo the law that ends nonmedical vaccine opt-outs by September 2021 at public and private schools and universities, including nursery schools. It’s part of a trend of states tightening rules on vaccines in response to growing numbers of unvaccinated children.

Referendum supporters say philosophical and religious exemptions must be restored because parents, not lawmakers, should be responsible for making medical decisions for their children.

People are preparing to vote on Tuesday as the global count of those sickened by the virus hovered around 83,000 on Friday. Officials in Washington state on Saturday reported the first death caused by the virus in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, warned the U.S. to prepare for a rise in infection rates.


There is no vaccine for the new virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. But researchers are working on vaccines and treatments.

Jessica D. Simpson, 68, of Cape Elizabeth, said that a colleague of hers at a nonprofit had previously planned to vote to restore the exemptions. The colleague is now voting to keep the law.

“She said, ‘Oh by the way I changed my mind on the referendum. I’m quite scared about (COVID-19), and I would like for there to be a vaccine, and for people to be vaccinated,” she said.

Last weekend, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills urged Mainers to uphold the new law, saying the spread of the COVID-19 virus around the globe underscores the importance of getting vaccinated.

But no one knows whether COVID-19 will have an impact on voters.

Bobby Reynolds, the campaign manager for the effort to keep the law, said despite anecdotal evidence of people saying they’ve changed their minds because of the new virus, most people already made up their minds‌.


And a spokeswoman for the Yes On 1 Maine to Reject Big Pharma, which is leading the push to overturn the law, said that few people have mentioned COVID-19 in about 600,000 phone calls made to voters. She said she can understand that some people might fear COVID-19, but she said the discussion isn’t germane to the Maine law.

“It’s not really relevant to the discussion over whether these certain vaccines should be mandated. There’s no vaccine for coronavirus and, if there was one, it’s not on the mandated schedule” of childhood vaccines, she said.

The Legislature’s action last year came against the backdrop of a spike in whooping cough cases in Maine.

Maine’s vaccination opt-out rate for kindergarteners is three times higher than the national average, and officials warned that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate among kindergarteners had dropped below 94%. That’s below the needed “herd” immunity level of 95% immunization, state officials said.

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