Rush for student vaccines

55,000 Md. students face suspension if not in compliance with new law

December 23, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

With tens of thousands of students facing suspension next month if they do not obtain newly required vaccinations, school systems across the state are going to extraordinary lengths to see that sixth- through ninth-graders are inoculated against hepatitis B and chickenpox.

A state law that went into effect this year added students in grades six through nine to those who are required to have documentation from a physician that they have been immunized or have a blood test showing immunity. In the case of chickenpox, a doctor's verification of the date the student had the illness can be provided.

As of this week, more than 55,000 students in the state were not in compliance, despite a Jan. 2 deadline, said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"Everyone has tried so many strategies," she said. "There are superintendents who say until we actually take the action and exclude students, [parents] won't take it seriously."

The regulations include a 20-day grace period for students who can show proof of an appointment to get the vaccination. Otherwise, Grasmick said, school systems must exclude children who are not immunized.

School system superintendents are "hoping against hope" that parents and guardians take action, she said.

Students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade generally have been immunized under previous requirements. But this year, grades six through nine were required to do the same, and middle and high school students are not regularly scheduled to get vaccines, as young children are.

School officials have sent home notices, mailed certified letters, made phone calls and taken out advertising to tell families that students need to prove immunity to hepatitis B and chickenpox before they can return to school after winter break.

Baltimore County has driven students who have parental permission from school to health clinics.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is sending 20 workers to knock on doors at students' homes.

Howard County asked its athletic coaches to target students on their teams.

County health departments across the state, working with the schools, have been scheduling clinics to make it easy -- and often low-cost or free -- for parents to get their children immunized. Grasmick said health departments will continue to offer immunizations after Jan. 2, and she hopes any child excluded from school would get the shots and return the same day.

In Baltimore, where 8,833 students lack proof of immunization, Health Department vaccination vans are holding extended hours, with Saturday clinics to be offered in January. The vaccinations are also being offered at the city schools that have Health Department clinics.

Harford cut its number of noncompliant students to 4,000 since September. Carroll has fewer than 800 students in need of vaccinations, and the figure in Anne Arundel is less than 3,000. Baltimore County was seeking immunization proof from 5,000 students this week; Howard County was tackling 1,677.

Don Morrison, a spokesman for the Harford school system, said people sometimes do not take the requirement seriously.

"They don't really believe it is coming to this, that students will be excluded," he said. "Now it's coming down to the deadline. We're finally reaching the critical point."

Kara Calder, a Baltimore County school system spokeswoman, said, "The message we all want to get out at this point is, if you do nothing else, call the school nurse. She will walk you though what you need to do."

County health departments will also field calls and provide information, particularly during the holidays.

The phase-in of the hepatitis B and chickenpox vaccinations has been more complicated than previous requirements because the General Assembly required the state health department to get more students covered sooner, said Greg Reed, program manager at the department's Center for Immunization.

Usually, the requirement is phased in, with the youngest students getting vaccinated first. As they move up through the grades and older students graduate, more and more of the school population is covered.

This time, the health department had to target older students as well.

"We realized this was going to be a very broad undertaking when this initial idea was presented to the health department by the Maryland General Assembly," Reed said.

Over the summer, the deadline was extended from September to January. But, Reed said, "we realized there were going to be a few students whose parents were not going to provide the needed immunizations until they were facing exclusion."

The state has given about $1.3 million to local health departments for clinics, advertising and other outreach efforts coordinated with the schools, Reed said.

Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, said the city Health Department is studying which public notification strategies are most effective as it plans how it would respond to a pandemic flu.

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