Starting this academic year, schools in Washington were required to turn away students whose parents claim a personal or philosophical exemption from the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
Washington lawmakers eliminated those exemptions amid a large measles outbreak in early 2019, but still allowed parents to cite medical or religious reasons to exempt their children from the vaccine. Families must submit proof of the required immunizations or remaining exemptions within 30 days of starting school — or risk their children being sent home.
But now, two months into the school year, many school districts have yet to determine how many students they now have to exclude.
Normally, districts are required to report their data to the state Department of Health by Nov. 1. Officials there extended the deadline by a month to allow districts more time to adjust to a new system for nurses to input vaccination records.
Seattle Public Schools — the state’s largest district — doesn’t plan to start excluding students until early January, spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email. Still, about 1 in 10 children in the district could eventually be kept home over missing vaccination records, public-radio station KUOW first reported this week.
“Approximately 88% of students have complete records now,” Robinson said. And “staff is focusing on the current challenge of getting the 5,700 (others) up to date.” Last year’s data from the state Department of Health shows Seattle’s vaccination rate — which includes kids in private schools — was around 87%. Just over 800 kids in the city claimed exemption from the MMR vaccine last year.
Public health officials strive to get at least 95% of a population vaccinated, a threshold known as herd immunity. Getting enough children vaccinated to reach that point keeps people who can’t get immunized — such as children under 1 year old or people with health issues — from becoming sick.
In Issaquah, 69 of the district’s 1,000 students are not vaccinated or lack the appropriate exemptions, said spokesman Devin Felix. But administrators did find something curious: The number of students with religious exemptions had more than doubled.
In Vashon Island, known historically for its low immunization rates, the school district has seen a slight uptick — from 78% last year to 80% now — so far in students completing all their required vaccinations. And similar to Issaquah, the number of families claiming religious exemptions more than quadrupled as the number of personal exemptions fell.
Seattle isn’t the only school district to have already missed the deadline to start keeping kids from class, according to KING 5 and KUOW. Edmonds has already excluded about 200 students, KUOW reported. Spokane — the state’s second-largest district — has kept at least 323 students out of school for not complying.
In Tukwila, lead nurse Mary Beth Paquette said the school district has not sent exclusion letters as it switches to a new immunization record system, but it has notified parents about the new law.
“Our parents have had their usual reaction and have ignored us for the most part,” Paquette said. “They will be receiving … 30-day exclusion letters soon.”
Measles is an extremely contagious disease that was eradicated in the United States in 2000 but has resurfaced recently in more than a dozen states, including Washington, Minnesota, New York and California.
At the beginning of the year a large measles outbreak began in Southwest Washington’s Clark County. By the time the outbreak ended in April, 71 people had been sickened, mostly children who were not immunized.
In King County, a dozen people have contracted measles this year. No new cases have been reported since July.
The reemergence of measles caught the attention of the Washington state Legislature, which passed the new exemption law that took effect in July.
Before the new legislation, Washington was one of 17 states that allowed some type of philosophical or personal exemption for the MMR vaccine. The state still permits personal exemptions for other vaccines such as polio and whooping cough.
Public health officials and people who study vaccinations say that narrow vaccine-exemption laws are an effective way to get more children vaccinated, but it’s unclear whether that’s happened yet in Washington.
Julie Graham, spokeswoman with the state Department of Health, said the agency won’t publicly release data on vaccines and exemptions until next spring.
The department’s data shows about 89% of students last school year had completed their vaccinations. Five percent had mostly personal exemptions from vaccines, but state records don’t say how many of those exemptions applied to the MMR vaccine in particular.