By RACHEL MIPRO
TOPEKA — A lawmaker asked for security during a hearing on anti-vaccination legislation after one of the speakers asked Republicans to “follow their hearts.”
During a crowded Tuesday Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee hearing, audience members applauded proponents of a wide-ranging vaccination exemption bill, despite Committee chairwoman Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, repeatedly reminding the audience they weren’t allowed to clap during testimony. Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, at one point said she didn’t feel comfortable in the room, which prompted outbursts and laughter.
The hearing lasted about half an hour, with Gossage asking speakers and lawmakers to keep comments brief. Several of the speakers, who said the bill would allow personal freedom and stop excessive governmental regulations, tried to speak over Gossage when she told them their testimony time had ended.
Lenexa resident Lauren Shiffman, who spoke in favor of the bill, said she had almost lost her job due to her anti-vaccination stance.
“I speak to the Republicans in this room, especially one over here, please follow your party,” Shiffman said, urging lawmakers to approve the bill.
“Let’s not do that,” Gossage said, telling the audience again to stop clapping after Shiffman’s speech. O’Shea then spoke up about her safety concerns.
Gossage tried to move on to the next proponent, but O’Shea interrupted the testimony to ask for security.
“We just don’t have time,” Gossage said, before having a reporter bring the security guard standing outside of the door inside the room.
The bill in question would require employers to grant exemptions from vaccine requirements without questioning the need for the exemption. Any immunization, vaccination, injection or series of injections meant to provide immunity against diseases would be included in the exemption list.
Kansas vaccine requirements are controlled at the state level. Despite a rising anti-vaccination movement, COVID-19 vaccines and other vaccines have been repeatedly proven safe and effective.
Vaccine requirements in Kansas for children attending school include shots for polio, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps and rubella, among others.
Opponents of the legislation said the broadened vaccine exemption could have a damaging effect on Kansans’ health and cause an increase in infectious diseases. Geovannie Goné, who spoke on behalf of the Immunize Kansas Coalition, highlighted those who work with vulnerable populations, such as hospitalized people and young children.
“Consider the impacts on hospitals, long-term care, and our most vulnerable Kansans, especially for those at high risk for contracting and having complications from vaccine-preventable diseases,” Goné said.
Another part of the bill would repeal the meningitis vaccine requirement for students living in campus housing. Maternity centers, child care facilities and schools would also have to accept vaccine exemptions on the basis of religious beliefs without questioning the sincerity of the request.
When asked about security concerns in an interview following the hearing, Gossage said one of the speakers had come up to her in tears after the meeting, apologizing for not being calm. Gossage said she told the woman to apologize to O’Shea.
“She said ‘I lost my cool, I’m sorry, I should not have done that, I’m not like that.’ I said, ‘You need to go say that to Sen. O’Shea,’ ” Gossage said.