State law requires tracking immunizations, exemptions
Methow Valley School District staff are breathing a sigh of relief now that they have records showing enough students are immunized against highly contagious diseases like measles, following an outbreak of the disease in the state last year.
It took a well-orchestrated campaign to obtain vaccine records for all students, Methow Valley School District nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said. “It feels good to be where we’re at. There are a few students with extenuating circumstances, but we essentially have immunization records — or exemptions — for 100% of students,” she said.
State law not only requires all students to be immunized against certain diseases (or have a permissible exemption), but also requires schools to have complete vaccination records. “The reason to have records is that if there’s an outbreak of a communicable disease, we know which students to send home — for their own safety,” Vanbianchi said.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) immunization rate at the school district is 95% this year. That’s the threshold that protects all students, including those who can’t be vaccinated for health or religious reasons, Vanbianchi said.
Depending on how contagious a disease is and how it’s spread, the minimum percentage of immunized individuals to attain what’s called community immunity (or herd immunity) varies. For measles, which spreads by coughing or sneezing and is so contagious that the virus can remain in the air for two hours even after an infected person leaves the room, it’s 95%.
“It makes me feel good to follow the law, and makes me sleep better that our community is well vaccinated,” Vanbianchi said. “As a nurse, I see vaccines as a gift,” in the same category as other fundamental health protections — washing your hands, wearing a seatbelt and a helmet, and not driving under the influence.
When enough people are vaccinated, herd immunity protects the whole community — and, in particular, people who can’t get vaccinated because of an allergy or weakened immune system — because germs can’t travel as easily from person to person, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said. Almost everyone who is not immune will get measles if exposed to the virus, according to the Washington Department of Health.
The 95% threshold that’s been reached for community immunity pertains just to the schools. There is no data to track the level of immunity in the Methow Valley at large, Vanbianchi said.
There were about 80 students out of compliance at the start of the school year — either not up to date on vaccines, or for whom the school didn’t have complete records, Vanbianchi said.
Getting all the records — and ensuring everyone was immunized — took a formidable effort over multiple years by Vanbianchi and her predecessor, school principals and administrative staff, and local clinics.
Families whose kids weren’t up to date on vaccines received repeated calls, letters and emails educating them about a 2019 state law that eliminated personal and philosophical exemptions for the MMR vaccine.
The state now allows MMR exemptions only for health or religious reasons. People seeking a religious exemption must belong to a religious body or church “whose beliefs prevent them from seeking medical treatment for their child,” according to the Department of Health. While personal and philosophical exemptions can still be claimed for other vaccines, they’re no longer legal for MMR.
The law allows school districts to exclude students who haven’t had the required MMR immunizations — or submitted an exemption form signed by a health care provider — within 30 days of the start of the school year.
When following up with families, Vanbianchi explained that vaccines are required not only for K-12 students, but also for college, the military and travel. “We kept saying, ‘It’s for everyone’s safety,’” she said.
Because parents are busy or face transportation or financial barriers, staff from the school and clinics helped people schedule appointments and arranged transportation. While vaccines are free in Washington for everyone up to age 19, there is a fee to administer a vaccine. Confluence Health and Family Health Centers were willing to waive the fee when needed, Vanbianchi said.
At Methow Valley Elementary, there are 16 religious exemptions for MMR out of 387 students, according to school district health data. At Liberty Bell High School, there are 15 religious exemptions out of 289 students. At the Independent Learning Center, there are no religious exemptions.
In addition to MMR, the law requires vaccination records for polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B and varicella (chicken pox). Overall, immunization rates for these other diseases are high enough to protect the school community, with rates above 90% for the most-contagious diseases, Vanbianchi said.
Although there are about 100 exemptions in the entire school district, that doesn’t mean there are 100 students with exemptions, since there’s a separate form for each vaccine, Vanbianchi said.
“I understand that vaccines hurt, and that kids are scared and parents are stressed,” she said. “You’ve just got to realize how important it is for your family and the community.”