Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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State’s true student-immunization rate unknown, audit finds

Review of data finds gaps in school districts' reporting to Department of Health

By , Columbian Education Reporter, and
, Columbian staff writer

Washington school districts, including Evergreen Public Schools, have historically failed to collect accurate immunization data, and they have not excluded students who fail to provide proof of immunity.

That’s according to a performance audit by the Washington State Auditor’s Office, which reviewed the state’s kindergarten immunization rates for the 2017-2018 school year to identify gaps in public health reporting. Of Washington’s 295 school districts, 29 did not report their immunization data or reported having zero kindergarten enrollment; other districts did not maintain adequate records on their students’ immunization status.

The net effect, according to the audit, is that the Washington Department of Health “does not know the state’s true immunization rate.”

“That is both bad and easy to fix,” according to the audit.

The report should be of particular interest to Clark County, which became the epicenter of a measles outbreak in Washington early this year. There were 71 reported cases of people sick with the highly contagious, but preventable, virus. Of those, 61 people were unvaccinated. After the outbreak, the 2019 Legislature passed a law removing the personal and philosophical exemptions for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said the audit showed the importance of keeping up-to-date records.

“If it’s not documented you don’t know that it’s done,” he said.

The audit focused on eight districts with particularly high and low vaccine compliance rates for kindergartners, meaning families submitted their children’s vaccination records, proof of immunity or an allowed exemption. Evergreen Public Schools was among the low-performing districts. Kindergartners in the 2017-2018 school year had a 60 percent vaccination rate, with 32 percent of families out of compliance. District spokeswoman Gail Spolar said that noncompliance rate has shrunk, and is now measured at 13.4 percent.

Clark County Public Health had been working with Evergreen to refine the district’s vaccine record-keeping system. The project was, ironically, delayed due to the measles outbreak, but picked up after the outbreak’s conclusion and was completed in June.

In response to that work, the district hired a clerk whose sole responsibility is to contact families of students who have not submitted proof of immunity or an allowed exemption, Spolar said. That clerk is tasked with making sure families know what vaccines their children are supposed to have, tracking records as mobile students move from school to school and making sure people understand what documents they must provide about their child’s vaccination records.

“We believe we’ve made some significant strides in both record keeping and assisting families,” Spolar said.

Violation of state law

Washington law requires that districts keep students from attending school if they haven’t provided proof of immunity or an allowed exemption. But the audit found that some principals were failing to do so. Staff at Evergreen told the auditor’s office that “providing educational services was their top priority,” and that students would miss out on school if they were excluded.

“The philosophy here at Evergreen is we want to work with parents to get their children compliant, and at the same time, we want their children in school,” Spolar said.

Still, she acknowledged that’s a violation of state law. She said the district will be notifying parents in the spring that, if they aren’t compliant by August 2020, their children won’t be allowed back to class.

“We know we’re going to have to be more hard-and-fast on that in the future,” she said.

Olha Bilobran, a senior performance auditor, said students who miss school due to noncompliance typically only miss a day or two before their families turn in the correct paperwork.

Still, Melnick noted the audit reinforced some of his problems with the school vaccine database. Melnick said people opposed to vaccinations have used the school database to try to make the case at Clark County Board of Health meetings that vaccination rates are higher than they actually are. That’s because parents don’t have to provide medically verified proof of their child’s immunization records. Since school vaccine schedules are complicated, Melnick said, some parents think their children are up to date, and accidentally report that to the school. He said schools don’t always have the resources to double-check what parents are telling them.

“This basically reveals what we’ve already known,” Melnick said. “The school immunization data is really limited in terms of its accuracy.”

The State Board of Health is requiring students to provide vaccine documentation confirmed by a medical provider starting in August 2020.

“That will help significantly. I’m hoping it gets the immunization rates higher,” Melnick said.