Voice of the Year: Dr. Tara Zandvliet

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Voice of the Year: Dr. Tara Zandvliet

One of the loudest, most intense public debates of the year started with a quiet medical practice in South Park.

The exterior of Dr. Tara Zandvliet’s office in South Park / Photo by Megan Wood

Dr. Tara Zandvliet didn’t intend to be a Voice of the Year.

She had a quiet practice in South Park, where many vaccine-skeptical parents found her by word of mouth. If they could show her a family history of autoimmune disorder – even psoriasis and eczema qualified – she would write their child a medical exemption from vaccination.

By her estimation, Zandvliet has written roughly 1,000 exemptions. At $180 per exemption, she made nearly $200,000 in her small corner of the market. But the general public had no idea Zandvliet was Southern California’s vaccine exemption doctor of choice.

Then in March, her business attracted more attention than she ever wanted. A Voice of San Diego investigation revealed that Zandvliet had written nearly a third of all vaccine exemptions in San Diego Unified School District.

Legislators – like Sen. Richard Pan and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez – swiftly reacted to crack down on what Pan called “unscrupulous” physicians looking to make a buck who were gravely endangering the community.

Pan and Gonzalez wanted public health officials to oversee vaccine exemptions, so that doctors like Zandvliet would no longer be able to write them for reasons that fall outside the generally recognized standard of care.

The anti-vaxx movement quickly rallied, staging rowdy protests in Sacramento.

Pan got shoved on the street by a man live-streaming the attack.  A woman tossed a menstrual cup full of blood onto the floor of the state Senate. Gov. Newsom hesitated, suggesting he might not sign the new legislation.

After months of debate that echoed out across the entire state, Pan and Gonzalez were successful. They passed a bill that will make it easier for state officials to crack down on doctors writing bogus exemptions. Zandvliet has also been charged with gross negligence by the state Medical Board.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, highlighting the people who played a major role in shaping civic discussion in 2019.

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