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This is how the state’s new vaccine law is affecting more than 1,000 Whatcom students

School districts in Whatcom County contacted the families of more than 1,000 students to remind them their children must have the MMR vaccine to continue to attend school under a new state law.

The measure no longer allows parents to exempt their children from the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, also known as MMR, because of personal or philosophical beliefs.

Medical and religious exemptions aren’t affected and will continue.

The beliefs exemption was removed in Washington amid a surge in measles cases nationally and in the state, where a total of 86 illnesses were reported in two different outbreaks in 2019.

That was the highest number of cases in the state since 1990, according to the Washington Department of Health.

There were no reported measles cases in Whatcom County in those outbreaks.

State public health officials, citing a study, linked a drop in vaccination rates and a growth in disease, particularly measles, to the ease of getting a beliefs exemption.

The kindergarten exemption rate in Washington is more than twice the national average, according to the state Department of Health, and the rate for Whatcom County is higher than the state’s.

The new law went into effect July 28, 2019, and applies to children entering public and private schools as well as licensed child care.

Public school officials in Whatcom County said they’ve been informing families in the months since the law went into effect and are working with them so they can meet the new requirements.

“Our desire is to support all of our students being in compliance because we want them in school,” James Everett, superintendent for the Meridian School District, said to The Bellingham Herald.

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Schools overview

Each year, school districts inform parents about missing or incomplete immunizations.

Letters for this school year included information about the new MMR vaccine requirement and a 30-day grace period required by state law.

Here’s a glimpse at the situation at each school district:

The Bellingham School District, which has the most students in Whatcom County at 12,069, has notified the families of 400 children who had the personal or philosophical exemptions on file, according to district spokeswoman Dana Smith.

“We will be continuing to communicate with families whose records need to be brought up to date,” Smith said. “So far, some families have reached out with questions and clarifications, and others have asked for help to obtain the immunizations.”

There will be several immunization clinics open to families, she said.

The first will be on Friday, Sept. 20, at Carl Cozier Elementary School and Shuksan Middle School.

The Ferndale School District notified families of 262 children that they were out of compliance for the MMR vaccine, according to Paul Douglas, its executive director for Student Services.

“In some cases, a family may have simply forgotten to update our district regarding current vaccines and we are receiving those updates as a result of the letters,” Douglas said in an email to The Herald.

“Others are visiting healthcare providers for updates. We have been contacted by a few families who have expressed frustration with the state law,” Douglas added.

The Ferndale School District has 4,826 students, the second-highest number of students in Whatcom County.

The Meridian School District sent 96 letters to families in June, according to superintendent Everett. The school district has 1,774 students.

Lynden School District sent 135 letters explaining the new law, Superintendent Jim Frey said.

The school district has 3,465 students.

The letter to Lynden families included information on a 30-day grace period from the start of school, Frey added.

“We are following up with families to see where they are in the process and will follow up with those who have not provided documentation after 30 days that they will be excluded,” Frey said.

The Mount Baker School District sent 202 letters to families letting them know about the new MMR vaccine law, according to Mary Sewright, superintendent.

The school district has 1,913 students.

“Parents have been very good about following up and letting us know if they have appointments to get physician-signed exemptions or get their children immunized,” Sewright said.

She said the timing has presented challenges for parents.

“It has been difficult for parents to make appointments with providers because the law went into effect in July and school began in August, so health care providers have been very busy,” she said. “Some parents have appointments in October and November and we are honoring these dates.”

“We work closely with all parents and seldom exclude a student,” Sewright said.

The Nooksack Valley School District sent 50 letters to families in July, and the district’s nursing staff will follow up over the next few weeks, according to Cindy Stockwell, assistant superintendent for the district.

Nooksack Valley has 1,907 students.

Information from the Blaine School District wasn’t available.

Learn more

cdc.gov/measles

doh.wa.gov. Type “measles” into the search window.

whatcomcounty.us/1707/Measles

Where to get vaccines

Melissa Morin, spokeswoman for the Whatcom County Health Department, provided the following information about how to get vaccines, including for MMR.

The MMR vaccine is covered by most health insurance plans, so many people will be able to get it from their primary health care provider.

Pharmacies also can provide the MMR vaccine, but often they only do so for kids over the age of 7.

Search vaccinefinder.org to find vaccines near you.

Vaccines for all children up to 19 years old are free in Washington through a statewide program. Participating providers might charge an office visit fee to give the vaccine. Many health care providers in Whatcom County are part of the program.

The Whatcom County Health Department provides free vaccines for children who don’t otherwise have access. This is for those who don’t have a primary care provider, who have a provider who does not provide vaccines or people who are uninsured or under-insured.

The health department offers the vaccines on Tuesdays from 2-4:30 p.m. People can walk in but it’s best to call ahead to schedule an appointment with one of the department’s nurses. The clinic number is 360-778-6100.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
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