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Health commissioner seeks to scrap vaccination education rule

Oklahoma Health Commissioner Lance Frye
Oklahoma Health Commissioner Lance Frye

Oklahoma Health Commissioner Lance Frye seeks to roll back a recently approved agency rule that would add another step before parents can opt their school-aged children out of receiving vaccinations.

Citing emergency rulemaking powers, Frye issued an emergency rule last week that would effectively undo a rule approved in June when Gov. Kevin Stitt approved en masse proposed agency rule changes.

Health Department officials, before Frye was appointed to lead the agency, proposed a rule to require parents undergo a "brief instructional presentation" before exempting their children from immunizations for religious or personal reasons. The presentation would be offered at local health departments.

In a statement, Frye said he revised the rule in order to minimize foot traffic in local health departments and allow employees to remain focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“OSDH will continue to ensure robust access to and education of vaccinations available to Oklahomans,” Frye said. “The new rule refocuses agency resources to the front lines of the pandemic and will minimize the number of individuals walking into a county health department at a time when these facilities are operating at maximum capacity to administer free COVID-19 tests.”

If approved by Stitt, the emergency immunization rule proposed by Frye would take effect Sept. 12 and cancel out the vaccine education rule slated to take effect Sept. 11.

In June, Stitt approved all permanent administrative rules, including the new immunization rule, submitted by state agencies for the past year.

"However, I have concerns with certain rules, and my team and I will review our options to address these rules moving forward," he said. When The Oklahoman asked for clarification on which rules Stitt was concerned about, the governor's office did not respond.

Stitt said he was waiting for a formal opinion from Attorney General Mike Hunter to determine if Oklahoma's governor can pick and choose which rules get approved.

In a letter this week, the deputy general counsel for the attorney general's office advised when all administrative rules are awaiting final adoption, Stitt can only approve or disapprove all the rules.

Oklahoma's Legislature has the option to overturn proposed agency rules. In the final days of the legislative session, a majority in Oklahoma's House voted not to approve the rules proposed by the Department of Health after a lengthy debate about parental choice and the effectiveness of vaccines.

The state Senate punted on the legislation, giving Stitt the final say on the rules. Vaccines have become a hot-button political topic nationally and locally in recent years.

Health officials proposed the new immunization rule as Oklahoma sees a growing number of children receiving non-medical exemptions from state vaccination requirements. The number of religious and personal exemptions requested, in some cases, have more than doubled over the past six years, according to data previously provided by the State Department of Health.

The state mandates children entering school receive nine vaccinations, including those for measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Oklahoma is in the minority of states that allow parents to cite personal reasons for exempting their children from routine vaccinations.

When Frye revised the agency's rules, he did not touch another new rule that stipulates vaccination exemptions expire at the end of a child’s sixth grade school year. Parents seeking an exemption for a child entering the seventh grade or a higher grade will have to repeat the exemption process, which requires submitting an exemption form.

Carmen Forman

Carmen Forman covers the state Capitol and governor's office for The Oklahoman. A Norman native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she previously covered state politics in Virginia and Arizona before returning to Oklahoma. Read more ›

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