In the 2021-2022 school year, only one Washington county met the federal goal of 95% or more children receiving all required vaccinations before entering kindergarten.
No, it was not a king.
The only county was Franklin in Eastern Washington where Pasco is located. According to new data from the Washington State Department of Health, about 1,550 of the county’s 1,600 preschoolers — about 96% — had completed all required vaccinations by the fall of 2021.
Preschool immunization rates have fallen in Washington, dropping below 90% for the first time in two years. According to new data from the Department of Health, about 75,600 of Washington’s 85,000 preschoolers — that’s 89% — had completed all required vaccinations by the fall of 2021.
The state of Washington provides all recommended vaccinations for children under 18 years of age free of charge.
Kindergarten vaccination rates declined in 36 of the state’s 39 counties as of the 2020-21 school year. The only three where rates increased were Ferry, Grays Harbor and Franklin.
Washington has never been among the top states in childhood vaccination rates. But when the state law changed in 2019 to tighten vaccine exemption requirements, rates rose. After years of kindergarten immunization from around 85% to 86%, the rate jumped to 90% in Fall 2019.
Even after the pandemic broke out and schools closed, the rate still rose to 91% in the fall of 2020. During that school year, kindergarten vaccinations in seven counties surpassed the federal target of 95%.
So you might think that in the fall of 2021, when schools reopen, the percentage of preschoolers with full vaccinations would continue to rise.
But that’s not what happened.
Vaccination rates fell statewide in the 2021-2022 school year, and rates fell sharply in a few counties. For example, in Jefferson County, where Port Townsend is located, only about 69% of preschoolers completed all required vaccinations, up from 88% the year before.
The decline in vaccination rates is not unique to Washington. It’s part of a national trend. During the 2020-21 school year, the percentage of preschoolers with all government-required vaccines dropped from 95% to about 94% in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in 2021-22, the rate fell another percentage point to 93%.
Disruptions to education, child care and personal health care made it difficult for some families to keep up with the injections.
Another possible explanation: Like everything else, public health became politicized during the pandemic. Controversy swirled around the COVID-19 vaccines, with heated debate over efficacy and possible side effects, as well as the implementation of vaccine mandates.
For some parents of school-age children, this may have reduced their confidence in government guidelines and in vaccines in general. In December, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 28% of respondents believed that parents should have the right to opt out of vaccinating their children, even if doing so increases health risks to others.
To be clear, the vaccinations required by Washington schoolchildren do not include the COVID-19 vaccine. Rather, they are for vaccines to prevent various childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, tetanus, diphtheria, polio and so on – diseases that were nearly eradicated. Now, with immunization rates falling, there is concern that this disease could reemerge.
Across the US, children must be vaccinated against childhood diseases before entering kindergarten, whether in public or private schools. But every state allows medical exemptions, and most, including Washington, allow exemptions for religious or personal/philosophical reasons.
But in 2019, Washington’s law was amended to prevent families from using personal or philosophical reasons to exonerate their children from the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. That reduced the rate of these types of exemptions to less than half the level of 4.2% in 2018-19, and it is certainly also the main reason why the number of completed preschool vaccinations increased in the fall of 2019.
But with personal/philosophical exemptions for the MMR vaccine, religious exemptions have increased dramatically since 2019 – from less than a few hundred children to more than 1,000. That was indeed the biggest change in the 2021-22 school year. More than 1,900 preschoolers, or 2.2%, were granted religious exemptions, up from 1.8% the year before.
The counties with the highest immunization rates were all in the east and Central Washington. In addition to Franklin County, Yakima, Douglas, Adams, Garfield, and Chelan counties were all 93% or higher.
The lowest rate was also in Eastern Washington. In the sparsely populated district of Pend Oreille, only 58 out of 86 preschoolers had completed their required vaccinations, against a rate of just 67%.
In King County, about 90% of preschoolers had completed their vaccinations by the fall of 2021, nearly 2 percentage points less than the year before.