Immunizations at all-time low in local schools

Too many South Whidbey students are not getting their immunizations, and they’re not only breaking the law but also endangering the community, health officials warned this week.

“The number of students out of compliance with immunization records has reached an all-time high this year,” said Jill Workman, nurse at the school district’s primary and intermediate schools.

Records show that 99 students in the district are out of compliance, which means they haven’t received their shots or claimed exemptions, Workman said.

More important, 19 percent of the primary school’s approximately 300 students are in that group, not counting an additional 10 percent whose families have claimed exemptions.

“State regulations have changed several times in the past few years,” Workman said. “It’s more and more difficult to keep up.”

But one requirement remains clear: Student immunization records must be up to date on the first day of school, said Marcia Statz, school nurse for the middle and high schools.

The only exceptions are homeless students, who are exempt. “They’re clearly not carting around little boxes of their records,” Statz said.

She said that many times students are transferring from another school, and their parents believe that the former school will send along the immunization records.

When that’s the case, the school here tries to track down the records, “but really the burden is on the parents,” Statz said.

“We’ve tried to be nice,” she said. “You want the kids in school. But sometimes we’ve waited three or four weeks, and then found that the records aren’t up to snuff.

“It’s really awkward,” Statz continued. “We hate chasing parents to tell them four weeks into the school year that their records aren’t up to date.”

Workman said the district historically has tried to persuade as many parents as possible to have their incoming kindergartners fully immunized.

This year, after reviewing the records and recalling last summer’s whooping cough outbreak on the island, school officials, with the encouragement of the school board, are persuading with more vigor, Workman said.

“There were at least 70 documented cases of pertussis last summer, and probably many more undocumented cases on top of that,” Workman said. “If there’s another outbreak, that’s potentially a large amount of kids who won’t be able to attend school.”

Since 1979, state law has required every child in a licensed childcare facility or school to be fully immunized unless they are exempt for medical, religious or personal reasons.

All other states have similar, or even more stringent, requirements. Washington is one of the few states to allow students to attend school who choose not to be immunized for personal reasons.

A child is out of compliance with state law if his or her immunizations are not up to date, or a signed exemption is not on record.

“Our community has been historically pretty relaxed,” Workman said. “It’s part of the island culture. But a lot of school districts in the state flat-out won’t let them come to school. We’re trying to get better at enforcing the law.

“I’d certainly recommend they get their shots,” Workman said. “All my kids are immunized.”

“But if they really object, they don’t have to do it,” she added, so long as they submit the required written exemptions. “We really don’t want people to think the long arm of the law is cracking down on them.”

There are some new state rules this year.

Students now are required to receive varicella (chicken pox) immunizations. That’s along with the previously required doses against hepatitis B; diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; and MMR, or mumps, measles and rubella.

And no longer is family anecdotal history permitted. You can’t say, as you could in the past, “Yeah, he had chicken pox when he was two,” and avoid immunization. You need a written verification from a healthcare provider, Workman said.

Another round of immunization is required for sixth-graders, she said. And parents of sixth-graders with exemptions must sign another form.

“If kids are completely up-to-date before they enter kindergarten, nothing else is required until they hit sixth grade,” Workman said. “If not, they have to play catch-up a little bit.

“Really, it’s for the health of the entire community, not just the kids,” Workman added. “It’s for the grandfather with lung disease, and the people with immune system problems. These people could die. It’s a way of making the whole community healthy.”

Dr. Roger Case, Island County health officer, agreed.

“People sometimes forget that they have a responsibility not only to themselves, but for the community at large,” he said. “And that goes for adults as well as children. There are immunizations adults are supposed to be getting, too.”

He said studies have shown that the principle reason why people don’t get the shots they need is “because it’s inconvenient.”

“That’s not a valid excuse,” Case said.

Workman said parents and everyone else should check with their healthcare providers or school nurses to find out which immunizations their students should have.

She said the cost isn’t prohibitive; some health plans accept the charges, and there is financial assistance and billing on a sliding scale for those in need.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Case said.

Immunizations are offered through the Island County Health Department at its South Whidbey campus, 5455 Maxwelton Road. Immunization clinics are the first and third Tuesdays of each month from 1 to 4 p.m., or call 221-8880 for an appointment.

For immunization information, contact your health-care provider, or call Statz at Langley Middle School, 221-5100, or Workman at the primary school, 221-6200.

For information about state immunization regulations, Click here.

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