In addition to notebooks, calculators and new computers, some Spokane children have another item on their back-to-school list this year: vaccinations.
New state rules require all students in grades 9-12 to have two chickenpox vaccinations before Sept. 30. In Spokane, that means roughly 8,000 high schoolers are due for their second dose.
“We made it a priority in the last year,” said Kevin Morrison, director of communications at Spokane Public Schools. “We’ll be doing a very focused message this year.”
Chickenpox, or varicella, is one of many vaccinations already required for most school-age children throughout the state. The requirement rollout began in 2014 for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, and it finishes this year for high school students who haven’t received their second dose.
And while vaccination compliance in Spokane County has been high, according to data collected by the Washington State Department of Health, officials at Spokane Public Schools say this is the first year the district has seriously cracked down on vaccinations.
“It became a focus because we had so many that were out of compliance,” Morrison said.
In 2013, 87 percent of roughly 1.1 million children in Washington completed all of their vaccinations. Last year, that number rose 2 percentage points.
In Spokane County, 81 percent of children were in compliance in 2013 with all of their vaccinations. Last year, schools reported about 90 percent compliance – an increase of 9 percentage points, or about 8,500 children.
Alexandra Hayes, immunization outreach coordinator at the Spokane Regional Health District, said Spokane schools started taking vaccination compliance seriously after a woman from the Olympic Peninsula died of the measles last year. She said schools in the area set the precedent statewide for record-keeping.
“Spokane Public Schools really clamped down,” she said.
State law requires children to be vaccinated from diseases such as measles, diphtheria and hepatitis B 30 days after the first day of school. If they don’t, they’re not allowed in classrooms. Of the roughly 30,000 students at Spokane Public Schools, Morrison predicts about 3,000 will be out of compliance across all grade levels when they walk through the doors on the first day.
And like other schools in the state, Morrison admits his district historically had many students out of compliance.
“We just didn’t either have the personnel or the amount of record-keeping that was necessary,” he said. “Sometimes it just did not happen.”
But that number doesn’t include children who are exempt, Morrison said. Exemptions can be either personal, religious or medical.
Last year, 7 percent of students in Spokane County were exempt from vaccinations, or about 5,500 of about 80,000 students. Morrison said if an outbreak were to occur at school, the ones who were exempt from that particular vaccination would be asked to leave.
“Some of the pushback was forcing students to do it,” he said. “We certainly respect the wishes of those who don’t want to vaccinate for whatever reason.”
Still, Morrison says, there’s a portion of the population that thinks they just can’t afford to vaccinate their children because they lack insurance or access to a doctor. But if that is the case, he said, they should contact Spokane Public Schools for help, as they can help find a low-cost solution.
“It’s always a bit of a scramble this time of year, of course,” he said. “There will be plenty of notices out to people.”
Meanwhile, students in Idaho did not need any new vaccinations this year and were already required to have two doses of chickenpox vaccination. But, unlike Washington, Idaho has lower overall compliance when it comes to children being up-to-date on vaccinations.
Last year, 73 percent of children in kindergarten, first and seventh grade in the Panhandle Health District, which covers North Idaho, were fully immunized by November 2015, according to the district. Boundary County reported having only 50 percent of those students in compliance.
Officials at Idaho’s Department of Education and various school districts within the state said the low numbers are most likely a result of immunization information being reported when school starts as opposed to after the deadline has passed. But some say the information just gets lost or government officials just aren’t paying much attention to the numbers.
“I get a letter once a year to tell me how I’m doing,” said Robert Vian, superintendent of School District 171, which covers all of Clearwater County. According to information from Idaho’s health department, it had 30 percent of its children flagged for incomplete records. “But, I don’t think there’s any hammer in making sure school districts do this.”
Like Washington, schools in Idaho are required to turn children away if they are not up-to-date on their vaccinations or have not opted out. But whether that is being enforced is unclear.
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