In late May of 2019, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed into law LD798, otherwise known as “An Act to Protect Maine Children and Students from Preventable Disease by Repealing Certain Exemptions from the Laws Governing Immunization Requirements.” The law, quite simply, removed religious and personal exemptions from the reasons that parents could avoid getting their children the required vaccinations. It also stated that, should they not get those vaccines, parents would be barred from entry from public and private schools across the state of Maine.
For Laura Blaisdell, a pediatric doctor who is trained in public health and who started the Maine Families for Vaccines coalition with her cofounder, Caitlin Gilmet, the passage of the law represented a huge win for community immunity and public health. It was a win, too, for Gilmet, whose fight became personal after her 5-month-old son had contracted chickenpox at a daycare center when he was too young to receive the vaccine yet. But almost as soon as the law was passed, an anti-vaxx activist group fought to get a people’s referendum on the 2020 primary ballot to repeal the rule. So Lomay and Blaisdell had to fight again.
On Super Tuesday of 2020, Maine voters overwhelmingly rejected the people’s referendum and voted to keep the more stringent vaccine laws. In a time when many states can’t even get a law on vaccines passed in their state — Arizona and New Jersey, for example — Maine is a rare beacon of hope against the fight of medical disinformation and faulty information that harm’s America’s kids.
Fatherly spoke to Blaisdell about how she and her “grass-top” coalition combatted the anti-vaxxers and what others can take from their fight to protect vaccines and community immunity.
How quickly after the law was passed did you get a sense that there would be backlash in the form of a referendum?
Certainly, the threat of a referendum was there nearly immediately. We were watching signature gathering happen over the course last summer, in July, August and September. Our opposition had collected enough money to pay for signatures. Some less-than-clear tactics about what people were signing were used, but ultimately, they were successful in obtaining the number of signatures to put this on as a people’s referendum. We learned that in October. We began organizing to defeat the referendum shortly thereafter.
What did that organizing look like?
We were a loosely organized, grassroots movement. We clearly did not have the infrastructure. We had no budget. It was all volunteer. So, we clearly needed to ramp up political campaigns very quickly.
We formed a political action committee so we could do fundraising. We hired a campaign manager to assist us — someone with experience with campaigns in Maine and with referendums — and we very quickly organized ourselves into a new structure, that was an executive committee. From there, we worked very quickly to grow our coalition, which ended up being an unprecedented coalition of over 60 Maine organizations, that represented nearly every hospital in Maine, nearly every major medical group and health care organization. Even the dentists, the pharmacists, school nurses, the Maine Council of Churches, and the Maine Council on Aging. Very quickly, we were able to build a coalition that demonstrated to Maine voters that we, as a leading community, felt very strongly that we needed to oppose the repeal of this vaccine law.
How did you reach the Maine voters?
I think our two campaigns were grass-top campaigns, as we called it. So, that’s a coalition of our supporters and their constituents. So when MaineHealth joined our coalitions, they had 23,000 employees to reach out to about the referendum. So that’s one way to run a grass-tops campaign: getting out the information. We had a good sense that Mainers would support the vaccine law, but they needed to know to vote “no” in order to do that. So we were really focusing more on a public education campaign than a campaign to turn the hearts and minds of people.
The vast majority of Maine voters, A) vaccinate their kids, and B) are supportive of vaccination as a condition of school entry.
So, we were also able to do some get out the vote work, closer to the vote date. We did an aggressive social media and broadcast and cable tv advertising campaign. S
We were able to do phone banks, and received assistance from some of the other folks in our coalition, like the Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund, to piggyback on some of the “get out the vote work” that they were doing, as well.
The vast majority of Mainers already support vaccines. Did you feel like you were fighting against medical disinformation? Do you think you did have to change people’s minds — people who would have voted yes — or was it really mostly making sure people knew what they were voting for?
We tried to stay focused on helping Mainers understand what they were voting for. And of course, our opposition takes the tactic of many anti-vaccine activist groups, in creating and sowing mis- and disinformation. For instance, the opposition’s tagline was “Reject Big Pharma.” They changed that to “Restore Medical Freedom.”
They were spreading information about vaccines that were not required for schools, that they were saying were required for school. Their text messages said “How can you support a bill that would kick kids out of school for missing one shot?” So, it’s that sort of hyperbole, and dis- and misinformation, that, yes, of course we were fighting. But it’s not helpful to chase your opponents down every rabbit hole they throw up.
We tried to stay on message. That there are dangerous diseases. That our community immunity has waned, and we know that, because these outbreaks are happening in our schools, and it’s too dangerous to repeal our new vaccine law.
And then, finally, all of Maine’s hospitals, including Intermed, LLC, the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital and the Maine Medical Association, agreed with us. So we stuck to those messages.
Was there ever a point where you felt like you weren’t going to win?
My general approach to things that are so important, and as critical as our community immunity, is that I worry every day. I worried every day that we were going to lose. And as a pediatrician, who treats kids with these diseases in my practice, as a pediatrician who has intubated babies, and watched these diseases and what they do to children and the medically vulnerable, I think that I never let myself feel like it was going to be okay until the vote finally was called.
That makes sense. You never want to take it for granted.
No, no, no. In retrospect, 73 percent of Mainers voted to keep our vaccine law. That’s the widest people’s veto margin in Maine since 1957. Every county in Maine voted no. And our win transcended party lines. So, you know, at this point, now, I feel what I thought to be true about Mainers, which is that they resoundingly support children and public health. So, I’m taking a deep breath this week.
What can other groups who might be trying to pass more stringent vaccine learn from your campaign?
I think it’s important that parents and medical professionals know that their voice matters in public health. I think it’s important for us to realize that there is no place for politics when it comes to public health. If Maine is a beacon of anything, it should be that the vast majority of voters in Maine supported our vaccine law and that when you look at passing legislation, the margins of passing legislation to correct community immunity rates may not reflect the true will of the voters. That’s a lesson that we learned.
Right. More people want these laws than don’t — it just doesn’t seem that way.
The opposition is much louder than they are in numbers. And I think that’s important for many to remember when they stick their neck out on this issue. The opposition tends to take a very loud, and vitriolic approach, to shutting down those voices. And, if one expects that to happen, it makes it much easier to tolerate, and just keep moving forward and do what’s right for children’s health.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We have to continue to monitor community immunity. We have to continue to monitor legislation that’s being put forward, and make sure we put forth these laws and protect our communities with our vaccine rates.
I feel like that’s interesting, to your point too, about not chasing misinformation down every rabbit hole. I feel like people don’t really know how to fight medical disinformation.
I think we’re living in a day and age where we can get any information we want at any time. So, fighting medical disinformation is not going to be possible on the internet. It’s not going to be possible on Facebook, and it won’t be possible on any social media platform unless those platforms are willing to put serious boundaries on the information they’re promoting.
So, when it comes down to it, I believe our coalition, which was over 60 organizations strong, demonstrated to voters through all of these organizations, good names, and trusted reputations, that despite whatever information one might be able to find n the internet, it kept coming back to: “Oh, intermed, the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, the Maine Medical association.” They were all in opposition to the repeal of this law. So, I’d believe that one of the — if not the foundation for our success — was bringing together all of these trusted organizations in the common voice, and saying, “No. We’re not going to withdraw this law.”
Chiropractors and naturopaths in Maine were fighting to repeal the vaccine mandate. Did that make your fight more difficult, considering these pseudo-medical sources were on the side of the opposition?
I do think that the pseudo-medical groups of chiropractors and naturopaths contribute to the mis- and disinformation. When I was in one of my television debates with the opposition leader, she said, “We have doctors.” I asked for specific names. The term doctor has started to be used widely both in the chiropractic and naturopathic communities, but that title of doctor means something different. It is different from a physician. Our training is different.
Chiropractors and naturopaths do not administer vaccines, which is another critical difference between the two of us. So, I wasn’t surprised to see support for the “Yes on 1” campaign from chiropractors and naturopaths. But it’s another mode of misinformation, and it’s them misrepresenting themselves as being on equal weight as the medical communities and hospitals.
It’s like this veneer of being official, that lends the argument credence which shouldn’t otherwise be lent to it.
Yeah. And I always came back to asking people: you maybe should trust those who actually give vaccines, and maybe it’s the person you call in the middle of the night, and it might be the person who admits you to the hospital. Those are, perhaps, the people you should trust on the issues of preventable diseases and vaccine safety.
I didn’t realize you did TV debates. What was that like?
Well, you know, it was straight out of the medical school debates course I took. Just kidding! Yeah, I didn’t have that course in public health school or medical school. But it’s difficult, you know? It’s difficult to maintain composure and stay focused on what is at stake — these are dangerous diseases that hurt kids and we can’t repeal our vaccine laws — and at the same time, debate individuals who are not held to the same standards of information. I, as a physician, adhere to evidence based medicine and stats and data that are valid. So, it made for some heated moments. But they’re online if you want to look at them.