COVID-19 vaccines will not be required for students to attend K-12 schools in Washington this fall, the state Board of Health decided in a unanimous vote Wednesday afternoon.
The issue has divided many school communities over the past year and made its way to the Board of Health’s radar last fall, when the board created a separate technical advisory group tasked with researching whether a COVID vaccine would meet all the scientific criteria needed to be added to the list of required K-12 immunizations.
The advisory group at the end of February voted to recommend against adding a COVID vaccine to the list of school immunizations required by a state administrative code.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, the board approved the group’s recommendation, effectively putting an end to the discussion for now.
“The Department of Health very much supports the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah, a board member, said before the vote. “… I also want to affirm the overall recommendation of the (technical advisory group), but that does not take away from the fact that our department continues to remain committed to its work to encourage the public to get vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Shah later introduced a motion to accept the advisory group’s recommendation, and board member Patty Hayes, former director of Public Health – Seattle & King County, quickly seconded after highlighting an ongoing need for schools to hire more nurses.
Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, the state’s science officer and co-chair of the advisory group, noted that while the advisory group recommended against requiring COVID vaccines in schools, “it may become necessary to assess whether this recommendation must change.”
“It’s really important for us to continue close surveillance of COVID-19 and be open to this possibility,” Kwan-Gett said.
If new data on how the vaccine affects school-age kids surfaces, or if a new variant emerges that appears to show more severe disease in children, for example, the board could revisit the issue in the future, he said.
Some of the main reasons the advisory group and board agreed not to require COVID vaccines for students stemmed from accessibility and implementation concerns, rather than vaccine effectiveness issues.
“We have to be sensitive to the fact that this is a very contentious issue,” said board member Bob Lutz, former health officer of Spokane County’s public health department. “… We will continue to advocate for vaccines because they’re effective, but we also have to look at the social implications.”
He cited school superintendents’ concerns about chronic absenteeism and parents/caregivers pulling their children from school during the pandemic, wondering if a COVID vaccine requirement might worsen the problem.
In addition, board and advisory group members agreed more data is needed about vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11. The Pfizer-BioNtech COVID vaccine has been granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration for ages 5 to 15, but has not yet been fully approved for that age range.
In Washington, state health leaders have acknowledged vaccination rates among younger kids have lagged compared to teen and adult rates. As of last week, about 32% of kids between 5 and 11 were fully vaccinated, while about 55% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 62% of 16- and 17-year-olds had received both shots, according to DOH data.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, members of the advisory group analyzed nine criteria that address vaccine effectiveness, disease burden and implementation, meaning the group investigated COVID shots’ efficacy and affordability, the morbidity of the disease, and the reality of delivering and tracking shots.
According to the state’s administrative code that requires immunizations for entry to schools or day cares, students are required to be vaccinated against, or show proof of acquired immunity for, chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and a few other diseases.
Students with medical, religious, philosophical or personal exemptions are excluded from the requirement.
The board has not acted against its advisory group’s recommendation in at least the past decade, board chair Keith Greller said earlier this year.
Some education advocates, including the Seattle School Board, have come out in favor of a mandate for school COVID vaccinations, while Gov. Jay Inslee has expressed doubts, saying he worries such a move would prompt more parents to take their children out of schools.
In the United States, only two states — California and Louisiana — have added COVID vaccines to the list of required immunizations for school-age kids, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. Both requirements would be enforced next school year, and only if the FDA grants full authorization to the kid-sized vaccine dose.
“This is a science we know now and it is evolving,” Lutz said. “Vaccines are changing, and the vaccines of today are probably not going to be the vaccines of tomorrow, or even three months from now.”