I’ve been seeing references around the blogs, Twitter, and Facebook in recent days to an ominous warning that Massachusetts was going to pass a law that would require citizens to take a swine-flu vaccine or face $1,000 fine or even imprisonment. This is serious stuff because there are some people who avoid vaccines for various reasons, and besides, it’s scary for the government to use its power of coercion to force people to take a medical treatment against their will.
There’s just one problem: The whole rumor is baloney.
As near as I can tell, the rumor mill began grinding a few days ago and looking back through all the blog, Twitter, and Facebook sources I could find, none of them could actually cite the letter of the law that proposed this dastardly intrusion on personal rights. Instead, they all kept coming back to this YouTube video:
But as I watched the video I realized it didn’t say what everyone says it does. In fact, the legislator being interviewed says that the bill he’s proposed would recommend fines for anyone who, for example, broke quarantine. Quarantine is not vaccination. So what’s he talking about? In fact, the bill itself says nothing about swine flu.
Here’s the real deal.
Back in January, that legislator, Massachusetts state Sen. Richard Moore, filed a bill in the Senate, S.18, “An Act Relative to Pandemic and Disaster Preparation and Response in the Commonwealth.” At the same time, Representative Peter Koutoujian filed a companion bill in the House, H.108. Keep in mind that back in January, swine flu was not still a blip on the public’s radar. The Mexico City quarantines were not underway yet.
In fact, similar bills had been filed in previous sessions of the Legislature, passing the Senate, and failing in the House. Ever since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, in fact, because it was that disaster that showed how ill-prepared Massachusetts is to deal with a similar crisis. More on that later.
The Senate debated the bill, a new version was written up, and the House and Senate bills were “engrossed” (i.e. combined) as a new bill,S.2028 and approved S.18 on April 29. After passage by the Senate, the bill entered the House Ways and Means Committee where it sits today. Whether it will be passed by the House this session remains to be seen.
I encourage you to read the whole bill as I did. You will that not only does the bill not say that a person can be vaccinated against his will, it says the exact opposite. Read Chapter 111, sect. 95(b)(2)(amended), lines 409-414:
An individual who is unable or unwilling to submit to vaccination or treatment shall not be required to submit to such procedures but may be isolated or quarantined pursuant to section 96 of chapter 111 if his or her refusal poses a serious danger to public health or results in uncertainty whether he or she has been exposed to or is infected with a disease or condition that poses a serious danger to public health, as determined by the commissioner, or a local public health authority operating within its jurisdiction.
They can’t be forced to be vaccinated, but they can be quarantined or isolated. Later, it says that for purposes of decontamination or diagnosis, the public health authority can seek a court order to force the person to submit. Again, this would be true for any case in which it was believed that a person’s refusal to submit to medical care made him a danger to himself or others.
The fine and imprisonment bit probably comes from this list:
(1) to require the owner or occupier of premises to permit entry into and investigation of the premises;
(2) to close, direct, and compel the evacuation of, or to decontaminate or cause to be decontaminated any building or facility, and to allow the reopening of the building or facility when the danger has ended;
(3) to decontaminate or cause to be decontaminated, or to destroy any material;
(4) to restrict or prohibit assemblages of persons;
(5) to require a health care facility to provide services or the use of its facility, or to transfer the management and supervision of the health care facility to the department or to a local public health authority;
(6) to control ingress to and egress from any stricken or threatened public area, and the movement of persons and materials within the area;
(7) to adopt and enforce measures to provide for the safe disposal of infectious waste and human remains, provided that religious, cultural, family, and individual beliefs of the deceased person shall be followed to the extent possible when disposing of human remains, whenever that may be done without endangering the public health;
(8) to procure, take immediate possession from any source, store, or distribute any anti-toxins, serums, vaccines, immunizing agents, antibiotics, and other pharmaceutical agents or medical supplies located within the commonwealth as may be necessary to respond to the emergency;
(9) to require in-state health care providers to assist in the performance of vaccination, treatment, examination, or testing of any individual as a condition of licensure, authorization, or the ability to continue to function as a health care provider in the commonwealth
Any person who knowingly violates an order of the commissioner or his or her designee, or of a local public health authority or its designee, given to effectuate the purposes of this subsection shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of note more than one thousand dollars, or both.
As I said earlier, this is a response to Katrina and other similar disasters where the lack of coordination between agencies and the failure to establish clear lines of authority and chains of command led to breakdowns in civil order and the efficiency of the government response and led to more harm to affected people. Massachusetts was seen as being deficient in this regard and so lawmakers are trying to pass a bill that enumerates such powers.
Let’s be clear: The public health commissioner would only have these powers during a state of public health emergency declared by the governor. If you do a quick search through the Massachusetts General Laws, you will see emergency powers enumerated for quite a few state agencies and entities. For that matter, you may as well push the panic button over the emergency powers granted to the Governor or the President of the United States.
Why did I go to all this trouble to debunk this rumor? Because we don’t do ourselves or our causes any good flying off half-cocked at every silly rumor peddled on some iffy news site or in a Twitter status update. We attract others to our way of thinking by being sober and studious and steady about the issues of the day and by being reasonable about the battles we wish to fight.
I encourage you to point others to this blog post and help me refine it if necessary with more details as they are available.