This is how the new vaccine law is affecting hundreds of Tri-Cities students

About 400 parents in the Tri-Cities need to make sure their children have proper vaccinations to attend school or find a different reason their child shouldn’t have them.

Kennewick, Pasco and Richland schools sent letters to parents alerting them about a change in the state law that prevents parents from saying their children didn’t get the MMR vaccine for personal and philosophical reasons.

The change in the immunization law went into effect July 28. It alters the rules around the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or MMR.

The law does not change religious and medical exemption laws and does not affect children who have one of those types of exemptions on file, according to the state Department of Health.

It also does not change the availability of personal and philosophical exemptions for other types of vaccines.

Washington state saw 86 total cases of measles in two outbreaks earlier this year, mostly affecting infants, toddlers and young children, the state Department of Health said. The second outbreak was declared over on Aug. 28, but the disease is continuing to circulate.

The majority of the children affected in the outbreaks weren’t vaccinated. The bulk of those cases were in Clark County, which has lower immunization rates than much of the state.

Lawmakers change exemptions

In reaction to the outbreaks, state legislators stepped in and got rid of the most popular exemption, which allowed people to claim they were philosophically opposed to having their child vaccinated.

Immunizations protect the health of your child, and the health of others, according to medical professionals. iStock Getty Images

The change in the law required every student to either get the first of the two doses of the vaccine or get a different type of exemption within the first 30 days of class. The two doses need to be given at least 30 days apart.

Students who aren’t in compliance have 30 days from the start of school to provide either exemption or proof that they’re starting to get the vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

The state Department of Health is directing anyone who disagrees with the law to talk to legislators, said Danielle Koenig, the immunization health promotions supervisor.

She said the department is fielding a lot of questions about the immunization changes.

Questions are coming from schools officials asking if they can accept certain types of paperwork, as well as parents asking if there are other doctors available because they haven’t been able to get an appointment to get the required immunizations.

Local districts

While Benton and Franklin counties have relatively high vaccination rates, letters went out to parents in Pasco, Richland and Kennewick school districts this summer who had previously claimed exemption on the basis of personal or philosophical reasons.

All of the districts said they are complying with the law.

The three districts were already ahead of the state average for immunizations last year, according to the state Department of Health.

While the local exemption rates are below the statewide averages, the personal exemption was the most popular reason parents used last year.

FILE - This Friday, May 17, 2019, file photo shows a vial of a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Paul Vernon AP Photo

Kennewick School District sent out 171 letters, while Pasco mailed about 200 letters. Richland said it did not have a count available for how many letters were sent because the notifications were sent out at the school level.

“The school nurses I’ve had the opportunity to speak with only had to send out a handful of reminders to families at their schools,” said Ty Beaver, the district’s communications director. “Our expectation is that families will have their children vaccinated or file the required paperwork for an exemption by the state-mandated deadline.”

Kim Lovelace, a Pasco school nurse, said the reaction from parents was mixed. Some families chose to get the vaccine, while others pursued a different exemption allowed by law.

Parents still have the option to get religious or medical exemptions from a doctor to abstain from having to have their child get the vaccine.

It will take some time for state officials to learn whether the new law increased the number of immunized children or whether parents sought a different type of exemption.

Districts across the state will file their immunization reports with the state Department of Health in November. That information then gets released to the public next May.

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Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.