Vaccination deadline nears

Vaccination deadline nears
Posted on 02/12/2016

Lane County schoolchildren must have up-to- date immunizations or exemptions by Wednesday

By Junnelle Hogen

The Register-Guard


Lane County health officials have sent out more than 3,000 letters — believed to be a record number — reminding families that they need to get their school-age children up to date on vaccinations or exemptions by Wednesday — “School Exclusion Day.” Students who aren’t vaccinated by Wednesday won’t be allowed to attend school or child care.

Families can opt for two types of immunization exemptions. The first, a medical exemption, requires a doctor to write a note explaining that a child cannot receive a vaccine. The second, the nonmedical exemption, is when parents choose not to vaccinate their children on religious or philosophical grounds.

But this year, many Lane County families who have sought a nonmedical exemption in the past will need to either reapply for exemptions or take their children to get immunized.

That’s because of a new state law, enacted by the Legislature in 2014, that limits parents’ abilities to seek nonmedical vaccination exemptions for their children. Beginning in the current school year, the law requires families who opt out of vaccinations for nonmedical reasons to either meet with a health care practitioner to discuss immunization education, or complete an online vaccine educational course. A year ago, parents who had previously opted for a nonmedical exemption for their children were grandfathered in under the new law, and only parents of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated kindergartners, and homeschooled students transferring to a public school, had to meet one of the new requirement options before claiming a nonmedical exemption.

But that grandfathering clause is now at an end. That means many families who received exemptions now must reapply, as all nonmedical exemptions signed before March 1, 2014, are no longer valid.

As a result, more than twice the number of families in Lane County are approaching the exclusion deadline without having updated their vaccination exemptions, according to Jason Davis with Lane County Health and Human Services.

“We’re seeing upward of hundreds of new families who are having to go back and redefine their exemption status,” Davis said.

Last year, 230 families who had sought nonmedical exemptions had not finished the process of being approved for an exemption by the end of January. This year, roughly 560 families were in the same boat and had a “no record” status, meaning health officials had not received or approved their children’s vaccination exemption status for the year, as of the end of January.

In 2014, the county health department sent out 2,400 letters to parents whose children still needed vaccinations prior to school exclusion day. That year, a total of 3,219 students claimed nonmedical exemptions.

Last year, both numbers dropped some. The county mailed out 2,200 letters, and 2,922 students claimed nonmedical exemptions.

But this year, the department sent out nearly 3,100 letters. Davis said he believes the bump is almost entirely the result of parents who, because of the new state law, must now seek a new vaccination exemption and haven’t yet done so. Davis also said he expects fewer students in Lane County ultimately will receive nonmedical exemptions this year, as a result of the new law, which was approved as Senate Bill 895. Davis said it won’t be known until May just how many parents who received exemptions in the past will have decided to now have their children vaccinated instead. Immunizations are offered for diphtheria, hepatitis, tetanus, measles, mumps and other diseases and illnesses. The Vaccines for Children program offered by Lane County Public Health provides free or low-cost immunizations to uninsured or underinsured children. Currently, there are about 52,500 students enrolled in Lane County.

The non-immunization rate in Lane County in 2014-15 was 6 percent, just slightly higher than the statewide rate of 5.8 percent. Generally, a community is deemed safe from diseases if the non-immunization rate is 6 percent or lower.

But Davis said it’s important for parents to know the vaccination rate at their children’s specific schools, which can vary widely.

According to January 2015 data, three Lane County schools saw more than half of their students waive some or all state-required shots. They included Hazelwood Kindergarten and Village School, both in Eugene, and St. Thomas Becket Academy in Veneta.

Father Trevor Burfitt, principal at St. Thomas Becket Academy, says he doesn’t expect to see as many families opting out of vaccinations this year for religious reasons.

“Some of them had already done some immunizations for their children in past years; they just had opted not to do all of them,” Burfitt said.

On the flip side, about 65 Lane County schools in 2015 reported that none of their students opted out of vaccinations for nonmedical reasons. Some of the larger schools in that group include Guy Lee Elementary in Springfield, with 384 students; Playdates Child Care Center in Eugene, with 137 students; and Springfield Learning Tree, with 102 students.

The Eugene Waldorf School has had one of the highest percentages of nonmedical vaccination exemptions in Lane County in recent years.

In a statement, Valerie Perrott, the school’s enrollment coordinator, said that school officials “concur that the decision to immunize is a personal one, and that it should be made by parents and their physicians.” Perrott declined to comment on whether a majority of Waldorf parents have indicated this year if they will be seeking exemptions for their children, or getting immunizations.

Regardless of their views on the subject, it’s important that families don’t miss the February deadline for either vaccinations or exemptions, Davis said.

“I think there are going to be more people who need to go through the formal process,” he said.