Community

New immunization policy may keep students out of the classroom

Vashon public school students who do not provide immunization records within 30 days of being told the paperwork is missing will not be allowed to attend, a move that will put the school district in compliance with state law.

For many years, the state has required that children receive vaccines for a number of diseases before they attend school. Parents who choose not to vaccinate cansidestep the requirement if they complete a Certificate of Exemption form and turn that into the school. If no documentation is provided, students are to be excluded from school.

But the law hasn’t been followed on Vashon, a situation that Superintendent Michael Soltman said he was unaware of until last year. In fact, district nurse Sarah Day, who is beginning her second year with the school system, said she found no immunization documentation for nearly 10 percent of the district’s students last year — a fact she discovered while computerizing the records.

In other districts where Soltman has served, his office has excluded students for lack of documentation, and doing so typically brought about a prompt resolution to the problem, he noted. He is committed to doing the same on Vashon when the required documentation is missing.

“I feel very strongly about it,” he said.

Day feels strongly, as well. “This happens at most other districts,” she said. “No records, no school.”

The district will also adhere to a law passed last year that requires an additional step from parents seeking an exemption from the state’s vaccination rules: Those parents now have to submit proof that they discussed the benefits and risks of vaccines with a health care provider. This law applies primarily to those students who are new to the district or have not turned in immunization paperwork in prior years, Day said. Typically, parents file immunization paperwork when a student enters the district, either in kindergarten or a later grade; the new law applies only to those who have filed for exemptions after July 2011.

“I think it makes good sense,” Day said of the 2011 law. “If people are not vaccinating for contagious diseases, they should know what the community-wide implications are.”

So far, Day said, she hasn’t had any problems with people following the requirements. She’s already worked with several families, helping them to obtain health insurance, schedule vaccines and proceed with exemption paperwork.

“We are here to help in any way we can,” she said.

No one wants to see students excluded from school for paperwork reasons, she added, and if families are making a good-faith effort or facing extraordinary circumstances, the district will give them some latitude.

“There is no need for an exclusion to happen,” she said.

Parents had a flurry of questions for Day after she sent out an email earlier this week announcing the changes, she said, and she wanted to allay unwarranted concerns.

“Everyone will get notified, and we're going to work with them. That is the bottom line,” she said.

Day noted that it is important for the school to have accurate vaccine records, not just for the potential health of the district’s students and employees, but because the information makes up an important database. Public health officials call upon her frequently to look at Vashon's records, she said, and it is important that they be accurate.

Washington is still in the midst of a pertussis outbreak, with almost 4,000 cases reported in the state so far this year, compared to 387 cases reported through the same time period last year, according to the Washington State Department of Health. Public health officials recently expressed concern that the return to school will cause a further spread of whooping cough, a respiratory illness that can be deadly for infants. Day, who shares that concern, said people who are not immunized are eight times more likely to catch pertussis and pass it to others than those who are immunized against it. People without protection are also more likely to acquire a stronger case of the disease, which is then more likely to spread.

In King County, rates of pertussis are highest in children between ages 10 to 13, followed by infants less than a year old, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.

On Vashon, Day said, 18 percent of the district’s 1,500 students have not been vaccinated against one or more of the illnesses for which the state requires vaccines, three times the state’s average. But exemptions in the district are going down, she said, and she hopes people who have not vaccinated their children against two of the most contagious and potentially harmful diseases — pertussis and measles — will reconsider and do so.

“I am really encouraging people strongly to get the booster for whooping cough and the measles shots,” she said. “Those are the two diseases our Island’s at risk for because of our low levels of immunizations.”

Vashon’s health clinics participate in the Washington State Childhood Vaccine Program, which provides vaccines for children under 19 at no charge, though some clinics may charge an administration fee for giving the shots. If that fee is a hardship for families, parents can ask that the fee be waived, Day said.

 

The PBS Newshour recently featured Washington’s pertussis outbreak and included interviews with Islanders March Twisdale and Celina Yarkin. To watch the segment, see www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/health/july-dec12/cough_08-22.html.

 

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