A resurgence of measles cases around the country has re-ignited the vaccination debate and left schools and health officials in Thurston County preparing for a possible outbreak.
That’s because some local schools have much higher vaccination opt-out rates than others in the state.
Preliminary data from the state Department of Health indicates that about 4.1 percent of students in Thurston County’s schools had exemptions for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine during the 2013-14 school year, according to Don Sloma, director of Thurston County Public Health & Social Services.
The highest opt-out rate is in the Olympia School District, where about 8.7 percent, or 827 students, have exemption forms on file specifically for the measles vaccination for the current school year, according to district spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet.
“Ultimately, this is a choice parents have under state law, but as a district we are working proactively to be prepared in the event there is a case or an outbreak in our community,” Japhet said.
In addition, about 14.7 percent, or 1,396 students, in Olympia schools have immunization opt-out forms on file for any type of vaccine, she said. So if a student has been exempt from the chicken pox immunization, for example, he or she would be counted in the district’s over all opt-out number.
At Olympia’s Lincoln Options Elementary School, which is a K-5 alternative program that’s often characterized as progressive, about 30 percent of the school’s nearly 300 students have opted out of the measles vaccination.
The second highest percentage of exemption forms involves families at Olympia Regional Learning Academy (ORLA). The nearly 400-student school offers a Montessori program, an online school, and classes and resources for homeschool families. About 23 percent of ORLA’s students have opted out of the measles vaccination for the current school year, Japhet said.
The Rainier School District also has a rate that’s considerably higher than the county’s average. About 8 percent, or 64 students, have school immunizations exemptions on file, said superintendent Tim Garchow.
“Out of 811 students, I have one who has opted out of measles-only vaccine,” he said. “All of the other students have opted out of all vaccines (including ones for the measles).”
The district hasn’t had a case of measles yet, and the flu is a more pressing concern at this time, Garchow said.
So far the district hashad to hire extra custodians about six times to help sanitize desks, door knobs and other surfaces in schools, due to high illness rates in their buildings.
“When we see greater than 8 percent illness rate on any given day at any of our facilities, we clean every classroom, every night, the desks and the doorknobs,” Garchow said.
The district usually ends up doing that 10 to 15 days a year, he added.
If a student develops the measles, a school can exclude students, staff members and volunteers who are “deemed to be susceptible” to the disease, according to state law.
“My understanding of it is while a family does have a choice to immunize, in the event there were an outbreak of the disease, the Health Department may make us keep those children home,” Garchow said.