In the 2021-22 school year, only one Washington county met the federal goal of 95% or more children receiving all required vaccines before entering kindergarten.
No, it wasn’t King.
The only county was Franklin in eastern Washington, where Pasco is located. About 1,550 of the county’s 1,600 kindergarteners — about 96% — had completed all required vaccinations by fall 2021, according to new data from the Washington State Department of Health.
Vaccination rates for kindergartners are down in Washington, dropping below 90% for the first time in two years. According to new Health Department data, about 75,600 of Washington’s 85,000 kindergarteners — or 89% — had completed all required vaccinations by fall 2021.
Washington State provides all recommended childhood vaccines free of charge for children up to age 18.
Kindergarten vaccination rates have dropped in 36 of the state’s 39 counties as of the 2020-21 school year. The only three where rates rose were Ferry, Grays Harbor and Franklin.
Washington has never been among the top states for childhood immunization rates. But when state law changed in 2019 to tighten vaccine exemption requirements, rates rose. After years of kindergarten vaccination levels around 85% to 86%, the rate jumped to 90% in the fall of 2019.
Even after the pandemic took hold and schools were closed, the rate still rose to 91% in the fall of 2020. In that school year, kindergarten vaccinations exceeded the federal goal of 95% in seven counties.
One would therefore think that in the fall of 2021, with the reopening of schools, the percentage of fully vaccinated kindergarten students would continue to increase.
But that’s not what happened.
Immunization rates dropped statewide in the 2021-2022 school year, and in a few counties rates dropped. For example, in Jefferson County, where Port Townsend is located, only about 69 percent of kindergartners have had all required vaccinations, down from 88 percent the year before.
Declining vaccination rates are not unique to Washington. It’s part of a national trend. In the 2020-21 school year, the rate of kindergarten students with all state-required vaccines fell from 95% to around 94% in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in 2021-22, the rate dropped another percentage point to 93%.
Disruptions to schooling, childcare and in-person healthcare have made it difficult for some families to keep up with injections.
Another possible explanation: like everything else, public health has become politicized during the pandemic. Controversy has swirled around COVID-19 vaccines, with heated debate over efficacy and potential side effects, as well as the implementation of vaccine mandates.
For some parents of school-aged children, this may have reduced their confidence in government guidelines and vaccines in general. In December, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 28% of respondents believed that parents should have the right not to have their children vaccinated, even if it increases the health risks to others.
To be clear, the vaccinations required of school children in Washington do not include the COVID-19 vaccine. Rather, they are vaccines to prevent various childhood diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, tetanus, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, etc. – diseases that had virtually been eradicated. Now, with declining vaccination rates, there are fears that these diseases will reappear.
In the United States, children must be immunized against childhood diseases before entering kindergarten, whether in public or private schools. But every state allows medical exceptions, and most, including Washington, allow exemptions for religious or personal/philosophical reasons.
But in 2019, Washington law was changed to prevent families from using personal or philosophical reasons to exempt their children from the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This has reduced the rate of these types of exemptions to less than half of their level of 4.2% in 2018-2019, and it is also surely the main reason why the rate of vaccinations completed for students in the kindergarten increased in fall 2019.
But with personal/philosophical exemptions on the table for the MMR vaccine, religious exemptions have increased significantly since 2019 – from less than a few hundred children to over 1,000. Indeed, this was the biggest change in the 2021-22 school year. More than 1,900 kindergartners, or 2.2%, received an exemption on religious grounds, up from 1.8% the previous year.
The counties with the highest vaccination rates were all in the East and central Washington. In addition to Franklin County, Yakima, Douglas, Adams, Garfield and Chelan counties were all at 93% or higher.
The lowest rate was also in eastern Washington. In sparsely populated Pend Oreille County, only 58 of its 86 kindergartners had completed their required vaccinations, for a rate of just 67%.
In King County, about 90% of kindergarten students had completed their vaccinations by fall 2021, down nearly 2 percentage points from the previous year.