Capitol Tracker: Humboldt County vaccination rates dip in 2018-19 school year

Number of students with medical exemptions is more than 6 times state rate

Dr. Richard Pan speaks about Senate Bill 276 during a health committee hearing earlier this year. Behind him is a poster that includes an ad from a Humboldt County business that sells vaccine exemptions. (Screenshot)
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Humboldt County’s vaccine exemption rate is more than six times the state rate. And the county continues to have a handful of schools that are flagged as “most vulnerable” because of low vaccination rates, according to data recently released by the California Department of Public Health.

In addition, the number of kindergartners with vaccinations in the county dipped during the 2018-19 school year to 88.2%, down from 88.4% reported in the 2017-18 school year. At a state level, the rate also declined from 95.1% to the current 94.8%.

“This new data shows the continued inexplicable rise in medical exemptions and demonstrate, once again, the necessity of SB 276. We must protect students who truly need a medical exemption,” said Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) in a statement.

Pan’s bill, SB 276, would crack down on what he is calling “fraudulent” medical exemptions by having the state Department of Public Health certify individual exemptions.

“I am authoring SB 276 because the exponential growth of medical exemptions for required vaccines is putting kids and communities at risk, as evident by the measles outbreaks we have seen this year,” Pan said.

Local data

Humboldt County is among nine counties in the state with vaccination rates lower than 90%, according to the new data. The number of kindergartners with medical exemptions — about 100 locally, amounting to 5.8% of all kindergartners — is more than six times the state rate of 0.9%.

That puts the county’s health at risk, the report states.

“Children in schools and communities with lower immunization rates remain at higher risk of contracting and transmitting vaccine-preventable diseases,” the new report states.

The California Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment on the data by the publishing deadline.

Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services immunization coordinator Rachel Allen said the number of local students who medically need an exemption is likely “closer to the state average,” suggesting it’s likely many local exemptions are unnecessary.

“We did have an almost 1% increase in the rate of permanent medical exemptions (over last year’s data),” she said.

Allen said, in the face of declining immunization rates, the county will “do what we’ve always done” when it comes to providing information about vaccinations. She said those efforts included outreach to schools and clinics as well as encouraging conversations with primary care providers.

The new report comes as the state is grappling with multiple measles outbreaks across the state. There are 51 cases of measles reported in California so far this year, the highest since the outbreak centered around Disneyland in 2014-15.

“Unimmunized older children and adults are amongst those who caught measles during recent outbreaks in California,” the report states. “For these individuals, decisions that were made in previous decades to not immunize have had lingering consequences for themselves and their communities.”

The state ranks schools for health safety based on vaccination rates. Those schools considered safest have rates of 95% or higher. Those schools considered “most vulnerable” have rates lower than 80%. At least five schools in Humboldt County reported vaccination rates below the 80% mark; two schools reported rates lower than 60%. Northern United Humboldt Charter, located in Cutten, reported 54% of its 48 kindergartners had all required vaccines; Arcata’s Coastal Grove Charter reported 58% of its 33 kindergartners were immunized for all required vaccines — a notable increase from the 47% reported during the 2017-18 school year.

SB 276

Pan’s bill, which moved to the Assembly last month, is unlikely to have an easy path to passage. Hundreds have spoken out against the legislation, calling it “government overreach.” During hearings for the bill, many parents threatened to remove students from public education if the bill does pass.

Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed some concern about government interference on health care decisions earlier this month, although he did not mention Pan’s bill specifically.

“I do legitimately have concerns about a bureaucrat making a decision that is very personal,” Newsom told reporters at a June 1 event. “That’s just something we need to pause and think about.”

To look up school immunization data, go to https://www.shotsforschool.org/k-12/how-doing.

Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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