Why did more Utah children get vaccine exemptions last year?

Immunization exemptions for Utah children increased last year, but a top state immunization official says he doesn’t think parents will be more reluctant to make their children required to enter school despite the politics surrounding COVID-19.

“You don’t really see the sky falling. Because it’s not,” said Rich Lakin, director of immunization for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, who described the exemptions for the list of mandatory vaccines that do not include COVID-19 as “no way” indicating parents object to receiving. their children vaccinated.

“Some of these, we know are claiming just so they can get their kids to school. They’re not against vaccines. They just don’t have time to go to their doctor,” Lakin said. “They just have to enroll their child in school. So the easiest process is to hurry up and claim an exemption and enroll your child.”

That reason became more common because of the pandemic, when many people postponed routine medical care for themselves and their families, he said. With schools shifting to online learning, Lakin said parents likely felt there was little reason to worry about receiving the photos.

For him, the real test of whether there is an ongoing problem with Utah children getting the necessary vaccines before they start kindergarten will come this school year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, many students and their parents have returned to normal.

“It will probably give us a better idea of ​​what our exemption rates are going to be: are they going to go up? Are they going to go down? But again, they really haven’t gone up significantly,” Lakin said. “From my point of view, the bottom line is that from 2020 to 2021, the school years were extremely abnormal.”

The pandemic is to blame for some “disruption in how it was reflected in the school vaccination data that we got. It was a very worrying time that happened across the country, across the world and in Utah,” he said. “We hope to collect new data in the new school year.”

‘This is scary’

Dr. David Cope, a family medicine physician in Bountiful, was alarmed by the latest increase because of the potential impact on what’s known as herd immunity, making sure enough people are vaccinated against a disease to avoid to spread

“Oh, that’s scary,” Cope said after reviewing the numbers Lakin provided for the 2021-2022 school year. “The rate required for herd immunity varies for each vaccine, but there are several that approach these minimum levels.”

But Cope also said she believes vaccinations are picking up as parents return to routines, such as regular child visits, where they can get answers to their questions about the various vaccines needed and get advice on whether they need ‘be up to date on your children’s vaccinations. .

During the worst of the pandemic, “it was very difficult and those numbers were pretty amazing,” he said of the drop he saw in routine checkups for children. “That took a while to recover from,” the doctor said. “This is happening now.”

The doctor agreed that because of COVID-19, parents “didn’t see the need, didn’t have the motivation or drive” to have their children inject at school, noting that ” getting waivers is easier than ever.” and it can be done from a phone.

Cope believes the political backlash against COVID-19 vaccines has had an impact on how parents view all vaccines. But she said they’ll still get their kids the shots they need if they get a chance to sit down and talk about their concerns with a trusted expert.

What happened last year?

What the numbers show is that across the state, kindergarten exemptions increased by less than one percentage point from the previous school year, from 5 percent of students to just under 6 percent. That’s only slightly more than the 2018-2019 school year before the pandemic, he noted.

But some parts of the state saw bigger jumps in kindergarten exemptions, according to a breakdown of state data from local health departments. The largest percentage of waivers last school year, just over 12 percent, is in the Southwestern Utah Department of Public Health, which serves Washington, Beaver, Iron, Garfield and Kane.

Kindergarten exemptions in the region, which includes St. George, had hovered around 10% in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years before dropping to just over 8% in the 2020-2021 school year. Tooele County saw a similarly sized increase, from 3 percent in the 2020-2021 school year to nearly 7 percent this past school year.

Exemptions are higher in some of the more conservative parts of the state, where fewer Utahns, including school-age children, have received their COVID-19 vaccinations, but Laking said he doesn’t see any connection with the politics surrounding vaccinations against COVID-19. , who are not required to attend school in Utah.

“We don’t see it as a political issue,” Lakin said of the increased exemption. “Covid is a different disease. You can’t really compare this to the other vaccine-preventable diseases,” he said, as many parents don’t feel their children face the same risk from coronavirus as they do from other childhood diseases.

COVID-19 affects the elderly and the medically ill most, but remains a risk for children.

There have been seven deaths and more than 1,200 hospitalizations of children ages 1 to 14 in Utah from the coronavirus since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to the state’s most recent information. Another 453 infants under the age of 1 in Utah have also required hospitalization for COVID-19.

And while vaccines against COVID-19 are now available for babies as young as 6 months old, the ability of the coronavirus to mutate into increasingly transmissible strains means that immunity from previous infections or vaccines may not be as protective .

Increase in herd immunity

School-required vaccines, however, not only prevent children from contracting diseases, but can also stop their spread once immunity is high enough. Lakin said public health officials are looking for a 94 percent vaccination rate because that’s the minimum to prevent the most contagious disease, measles, from spreading.

But for the 2021-22 school year, half of the state’s 14 local health departments were above 6 percent for exemptions for the list of required vaccines for kindergartners: measles, mumps, rubella , diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis A and B. , chicken pox and poliomyelitis.

Lakin said the vaccine exemption rate needs a boost to prevent these diseases from returning, especially as diseases such as polio continue to spread in the United States after the country’s first case in nearly a decade was reported in a unvaccinated adult near New York City.

“It’s important that the Utah Department of Health and Human Services and the immunization program continue to find new and improved ways to communicate with parents and really emphasize the importance of vaccinating their students,” he said, and he added: “We want to make sure everyone is vaccinated and protected.”

Given the size of increases in vaccination exemptions in some parts of the state last year, Utah may have avoided an increase in preventable childhood illnesses because many people were still taking pandemic precautions, Lakin said.

If places in the state continue to lack herd immunity, outbreaks may now be more likely, he said.

“We’re coming out of the pandemic, where people are socializing more and getting closer and traveling more. So the potential is there, yes,” Lakin said, unlike last school year, when more Utahns were wearing masks and social distancing .

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Dr. David Cope, right, plays with 11-month-old Kennadi Deslaurier, who is being held by his mother, Bailey, at Cope Family Medicine in Bountiful on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Opening a “Pandora’s Box”

Parents need more reassurance about vaccines because of what they’ve heard about COVID-19 shots, Cope said.

“I’ve spent more time talking about things with parents,” the doctor said. “It’s been an interesting moment, where they were concerned about the COVID vaccine and how they extrapolate those concerns and fears to the other vaccines that have been around for a while.”

Most parents, he said, “after an argument they realize that’s OK and they go ahead and get them. I haven’t had people say, ‘No, I’m not going to get them.'” I think there’s been a little of that for the COVID vaccine itself. But for the others … the numbers in my practice have not dropped significantly.”

So what is it about the COVID-19 vaccine that has parents questioning the vaccinations kids have been getting for years?

“You’ve opened up a Pandora’s box. I spend a lot of my time talking to parents about this and why they’re afraid. I think politics plays into it and it’s on both sides,” said Cope, among both conservatives and liberals. , and Republicans and Democrats.

Parents “feel like they’re being told to do something and they don’t want to do something just because they’re being asked to do it,” he said, comparing the reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine to what happened when introduced an HPV vaccine. for young people

The COVID-19 vaccine is also “new and it’s new. It’s the same thing we went through when the Gardasil vaccine came out years ago. For a while, it was very controversial and there was a lot of hesitation. that. Now, it’s much better accepted,” Cope said

Something new sparks debate about vaccines in general, he said, but in his experience, parents are willing to go ahead and allow their children to get the shots they need for school once they “realize: “It’s OK. We’ve done it before.”

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