Maine Wire | by Steve Robinson | October 20, 2022
Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah joined the CDC in voting to add COVID-19 injections to the vaccination schedule for children, continuing the liability shield for major pharmaceutical firms. but Gov. Janet Mills and state officials won’t say what this means for Maine schools’ vaccine requirements.
Maine Center for Disease Control (MCDC) Director Nirav D. Shah on Thursday joined fellow members of the federal Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (CDC’s ACIP) voting 15-0 to support the addition of COVID-19 vaccinations to the federal schedule of child and adolescent vaccinations.
The controversial move adds to the national debate over whether vaccines should mandated for public school children.
But Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Shah, state health officials, and the Department of Education won’t say whether they’ll support or oppose adding the vaccine to the schedule of shots children are required to get in order to attend a Maine public school.
Shah also joined 14 other ACIP members Wednesday in supporting the addition of COVID-19 vaccinations to the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, a federal program that subsidizes vaccines for low-income families when they become commercially available.
The votes came during a two-day period of meetings in Atlanta.
Neither the CDC nor ACIP have the authority to mandate vaccines for school attendance. Only states and local jurisdictions have that authority. However, the addition to the federal schedule has consequences for vaccine manufacturers, those injured by vaccines, and several states. The change means vaccine manufacturers will continue to be shielded from liability for adverse events associated with individuals who get the COVID-19 vaccine, and many states tie their required school vaccination lists directly to federal guidelines.
The schedule change will move pharmaceutical companies’ liability shield from the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP) to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Both programs compensate individuals injured by vaccines as an alternative to making pharmaceutical companies directly liable. Congress created the programs to avoid disincentivizing the timely production of vaccines, but critics say the programs allow mega pharmaceutical companies largely to escape the consequences of reckless behavior.
During the Thursday meeting, Shah said adding COVID-19 shots to the VFC program and the federal schedule would not mandate the vaccine in public schools. He made the following statement during Thursday’s discussion of childhood COVID-19 vaccinations:
“The vote and the discussion around the addition of COVID-19 vaccines to the recommended immunization schedule is separate and distinct from yesterday’s vote in support of a resolution to add COVID-19 to the Vaccines for Children program schedule at the point the vaccines become commercialized. Yesterday’s vote, in effect, was a resolution about the coverage of the vaccine for un- and underinsured children. Not a discussion about what pediatricians ought to be doing in an office setting. This discussion today around adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the recommended childhood immunization schedule does not constitute a requirement that any child receive the vaccine. That decision remains where it did before. This is rather a codification of a preexisting recommendation. We recognize that there is concern around this. But moving COVID-19 to the recommended immunization schedule does not impact what vaccines are required for school entrance, if any. Indeed, there are vaccines that are on the schedule right now that are not required for school attendance in many jurisdictions, such as seasonal influenza. Local control matters. And we honor that. The decision around school entrance for vaccines rests where it did before, which is with the state level, the county level, and at the municipal level, if it exists at all. They are the arbiters of what vaccines are required, if any, for school entry. This discussion does not change that.”
Shah’s comment might technically be true, but it’s not the entire story. Although the two ACIP votes do not directly mandate vaccinations in public schools, some states, like Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia, have statutory vaccine requirements that are based on CDC recommended lists, which means the schedule change will lead to school vaccine requirements in those states if no other action is taken. So it’s not accurate for Shah to say the recommendation will have no impact on school requirements.
Maine’s law concerning the vaccination of school children does not have a CDC-linked trigger; however, the CDC recommendation could be the first step for Maine and other states to begin adding COVID-19 drugs pursuant to state and local processes. The ACIP votes would give cover to states looking to mandate vaccines without shouldering the political fallout. In the face of criticism from parents, state and school officials could say they were simply following the guidance from CDC officials, as was often the case during debates over school closures, child masking, and other debates over school COVID-19 policies.
The Maine Wire reached out multiple times by email to Gov. Janet Mills, the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine CDC, and Shah seeking comment on the CDC recommendation and asking whether they will support adding COVID-19 vaccines to the list of shots required to attend school in Maine.
None of them responded.
Although the Mills administration has historically marched in lockstep with Shah and the federal CDC on COVID-19 policies, vaccine mandates for school attendance could be a third-rail political issue Mills wants to avoid less than three weeks out from Election Day. Mills could fear that taking a public stand on public school vaccination requirements will alienate supporters on the left who are skeptical of the vaccine.
That Shah backed both ACIP moves suggests he would lean toward making the vaccination mandatory in Maine schools. Shah has supported COVID-19 vaccinations for children since at least October 2021. He has advocated strongly on social media for widespread vaccinations of children as young as six months. And he joined the Mills administration’s effort to use the power of the state to force Mainers to get injections if they work in certain health care jobs.
Shah has been a member of the federal Center for Disease’s ACIP since September 26. His addition to that important committee went largely unnoticed and underreported on in Maine – an unusual thing for a man who became a quasi-celebrity for his Andrew Cuomo-style COVID-19 briefings and wacky social media shenanigans. The Maine CDC did not put out a press release regarding his joining the committee, nor did Shah tout the add on his own Twitter page. A Google News search for “Nirav Shah Joins ACIP” yields only six results, none of them related to his joining the federal committee.
ACIP allows anyone to apply for membership on the committee or nominate someone else as candidate. Decisions about final admission to the committee are made by the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary. A CDC official confirmed in an email that U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra approved Shah’s membership on the committee. The committee is comprised of 14 health experts and one consumer representative.
The ACIP vote outcomes were telegraphed last week when CDC official Sarah Meyer said in a webinar reporters and health officials should be on the lookout for an ACIP move that would result in COVID-19 shots appearing on child, adolescent, and adult schedules.
“Stay tuned for next week’s ACIP meeting that will be discussed about the COVID-19 vaccines appearing on child, adolescent, and adult schedules, as well as discussion around the use of the vaccine in the VFC program,” said Meyer.
Shah will remain on ACIP until June 2023.
Presently, Maine law requires that parents vaccinate their school-attending children for the following diseases: diphtheria, measles, meningococcal meningitis, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, tetanus, rubella, and varicella. Not all of the federally recommended vaccines are required for Maine school children.
Whether the vaccine prevents transmission is a subject that made headlines in recent weeks following comments from a Pfizer rep on Oct. 10. Pfizer’s Janine Small told the European Parliament’s COVID-19 committee that the vaccine was never tested for transmission prevention because of the desire to get a product to market quickly, which led an old fact to create a new cycle of buzz.
Although preventing the spread of COVID-19 was the rationale used by many politicians, pharmaceutical CEOs, and public officials to push vaccination mandates, there was no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine prevented transmission of the virus when it received emergency use authorization, according to the Federal Drug Administration’s 2020 emergency use authorization.
It remains unclear how vaccination mandates would help limit the spread of the virus if the vaccine does not deter transmission or infection but is instead aimed at reducing severe illness among those who contract it. Some European countries have recently paused the use of vaccines in younger males due to cardiovascular side effects.
According to Maine CDC data, 9,010, children aged 4 and younger, 46,119 children aged 5-11, and 90,407 adolescents aged 12-19 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly three in four Mainers are considered vaccinated by the Maine CDC.
According to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a federal program that tracks injuries sustained in conjunction with vaccinations, there have been 4,289 vaccine injuries reported in Maine following COVID-19 vaccinations.
Only four Mainers under the age of 20 have died after contracting COVID-19, according to Maine CDC data: a Penobscot County man died June 6, 2021; a Franklin County women died October 13, 2021; a Somerset County women died January 25, 2022; and a Cumberland County man died March 9, 2022.
The Maine Wire reached out multiple times to the communications teams for Gov. Mills, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine CDC, the Department of Education, and Shah himself asking whether they support the inclusion of COVID-19 vaccines in the list of vaccines required in order to attend public school in Maine.
None of them responded.
If any state officials do respond to inquiries, this report will be updated.