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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

COVID-19 vaccines will not be required for school entry in Washington state

Lincoln Slatter, 10, receives his COVID-19 vaccine shot from volunteer Kathy Morgan R.N at the first major in-school COVID vaccination clinic for kids aged 5-11, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at Trent Elementary School. The Washington Board of Health on Wednesday voted to not require the COVID-19 vaccination for schools and day cares.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Washington State Board of Health will not require COVID-19 vaccines for children to attend schools and day cares.

Earlier this year, the technical advisory group, made up of representatives from public health and education sectors statewide, had recommended that the board not require the COVID vaccine for school entry after considering nine criteria, studying the data and collecting input from experts.

That group concluded that the vaccine was safe and effective at preventing disease, and reducing the risk of transmission.

The group disagreed about whether the vaccine was cost effective and how a requirement might be a burden to comply with, and members had worries over public sentiment. It was for these reasons that the technical advisory group voted to not recommend the COVID vaccine be required for students. The vaccine is required for most teachers and child care workers in Washington.

Ultimately, the board agreed with their advisory group.

Board members said their decision is not a signal that vaccines are not effective against the virus.

“The Department of Health very much supports the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations, and particularly, it’s been shown to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death, and we believe it’s safe and effective in all populations,” Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said on Wednesday.

But while board members agreed the vaccine is safe and effective, they also acknowledged that contending with public sentiment and the burden of compliance were too great.

Board members wanted to see some data that is not yet available, including studies showing how vaccines affect virus transmission in schools or how vaccinated children can bring down COVID hospitalization rates.

School districts across the state, as well as their representatives on the technical advisory group, expressed concerns about the work that would be necessary to enforce a newly mandated vaccine in the schools, especially when exemptions are accepted and must be processed. Some Board of Health members expressed support for increasing resources for school nurses and districts to be able to serve their students as a result.

Additionally, some parents, including some of those publicly commenting on Wednesday, threatened to pull their children out of public schools should a COVID vaccine mandate go into effect.

The effectiveness of a mandate in Washington state schools was also questioned Wednesday, especially with a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation showing 28% of parents surveyed would “definitely not” vaccinate their children, with just 4% of that group saying a vaccine requirement would change their mind.

Even the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics did not endorse a COVID vaccine requirement for students.

Dr. Michael Barsotti, president of the chapter, told the Board he believes all children and teens should be vaccinated, but keeping kids in school is also a priority.

“If the priority is for in-person school attendance, the vaccine mandate would create barriers to achieving that goal,” Barsotti told the Board.

Equitable distribution of the vaccine and access to the vaccine was also a concern among board members, pointing to low vaccination rates among Hispanic and Black children in the state.

The board received thousands of public comments, both written and verbal, opposing the mandate of the COVID vaccine in schools.

During his 11-year tenure on the board, President Keith Grellner said he cannot recall a time when there was so much public response and reaction to the board’s potential actions. And while people protesting vaccine mandates is nothing new, Grellner said the pandemic has been completely different.

“It’s nothing like what we’ve had the last year and a half or two years – it’s nothing – the scope, the depth, the intensity, this is warp-speed above anything else we’ve dealt with,” Grellner said.

Earning back the public’s trust was top of mind for board members.

“We have to rebuild that trust and be able to show the residents we don’t have enough information, but we’re willing to put this on pause until we have more information to make a more data-driven decision,” said Elisabeth Crawford, who represents cities on the Board of Health.

The board also left open the door to revisit requiring the COVID vaccine in schools in the future if it’s necessary due to a new variant or more severe disease in children.

The Board of Health alone has the authority to require vaccinations for students for entry to day cares and schools in Washington state.

It has a multistep process to go through each time they consider requiring an additional vaccine in Washington’s schools, and board members praised the transparent process on Wednesday.

“If science changes in the future, this recommendation might also change,” said Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, chief science officer at the Department of Health.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.