Health department worries about last-minute rush to get vaccine waivers

Posted at 8:25 PM, Aug 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-03 22:40:02-04

KENT COUNTY, Mich. -- For parents planning to opt out of having their children vaccinated before the start of the new school year, time is running out to get a waiver in a process that's changed since last school year.

Under new state policy that went into effect Jan. 1, parents are now required to attend an educational session at their local county health department before being able to get a vaccine waiver for their child for either religious or philosophical reasons.

“We looked at our process of reporting and determined it really needed to be in a different place, not in the schools but at the health department," said Mary Wisinski, immunization program supervisor for the Kent County Health Department.

Wisinski said in the past it was more convenient for parents seeking a waiver because they could simply pick one up from a secretary at their child's school, a likely factor behind Michigan having one of the highest vaccine waiver rates in the country.

“Nobody likes change and being told what to do," she said. "But again, they (parents) do have the decision to not vaccinate, but we also have the right to say you can’t come to school.”

Last year, Wisinski said close to 900 waivers were authorized in Kent County prior to the start of the school year. With less than a month to go before this coming school year, the county has authorized less than half that amount.

“It is worrisome, we’re already doing some planning," she said, including preparing to bring on extra staff to work longer hours with the expectation of receiving more calls from parents to schedule an educational session before September.

Kent county's vaccine waiver rate is roughly 3 percent--similar to the statewide average--according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Kalamzoo, Calhoun, Ottawa and Allegan counties also have waiver rates similar to the statewide average. Ionia county has one of the highest waiver rates in West Michigan at roughly 5 percent.

Check the waiver rates in your county here.

The waivers are required for all children entering preschool, kindergarten and 7th grade. Students who are switching schools are also required to have a waiver if not vaccinated.

A session should only last 15-20 minutes, where a county health nurse will offer information on the benefits and risks associated with vaccinating, or choosing not to vaccinate. Wisinski says she and her nurses don't expect to change many minds.

“We do want to do individual appointments because not every parent has the same concerns, not every parent is comfortable in a group setting," she said.

“I’m not here to say that you’re a bad parent and why aren’t you vaccinating your kids or to twist their arm. We’re just here to give them reliable sources to see what their specific concerns are and ultimately it’s their decision."

In Michigan, recent outbreaks of whooping cough and the measles have reignited the debate over vaccinations.

If child is not vaccinated by the start of the school year, and does not have a waiver, they will not be allowed to attend school.

In June, California lawmakers passed controversial legislation requiring all school children to be vaccinated, unless an exception is given by a doctor. The new law does away with parents’ ability to claim a personal or religious belief exemption.