Educators enforce policy on chickenpox and hepatitis B vaccines, sending reluctant students to clinics

A dose of compliance

January 05, 2007|By Sandy Alexander and Bradley Olson | Sandy Alexander and Bradley Olson,sun reporters

Even after school officials told Danielle Fishback, 14, that she would have to get vaccinations for chickenpox and hepatitis B or she wouldn't be allowed to return to Wilde Lake High School after winter break, she hesitated at the thought of the needles.

"I didn't want to take it. I was scared," she said. "During winter break, I didn't think about it."

Fishback, a ninth-grader who lives in Columbia, was one of thousands of Maryland students who missed school this week for failing to comply with new regulations requiring schools to exclude students who hadn't received the vaccines.

Even after break, Fishback evaded the shots, skipping school Tuesday, Wednesday and yesterday for fear she'd be sent home, although most school districts allowed students to attend if they could show proof of an appointment with a pediatrician or county health clinic.

Yesterday, her sister took her to the clinic in Laurel to get the dreaded shots.

"I just don't like shots," she said.

Despite nearly a year's worth of mailings, report card notices, advertising and, in many cases, visits and one-on-one conversations with parents, thousands of students all over the state still missed the Jan. 1 deadline to get the immunizations. And all over Maryland, clinics, pediatricians and school nurses have scrambled to catch up.

The state has given about $1.3 million to local health departments for clinics, advertising and other outreach efforts coordinated with the schools, said Greg Reed, program manager at the state health department's Center for Immunization. State officials did not have updated figures yesterday of how many students remained noncompliant, but more than 16,000 students in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties had yet to show proof of the shots.

As of Wednesday, for example, 38 Carroll public-school students lacked vaccinations -- or proof of an upcoming appointment for them, said Marge Hoffmaster, supervisor of health services for the district.

"We're dropping every day," Hoffmaster said. "We've been working ... hard since last year to make sure it wasn't a big issue."

The new rules requiring the vaccines were originally scheduled to go into effect before the 2006-2007 school year began. But the deadline was extended when thousands of parents were still on the brink of missing the cutoff. Even an extra four months didn't make much of a difference.

"I don't know how anybody missed all the information we sent home," said Maureen Diaczok, program manager for school health in Anne Arundel County. "The school nurses have made a Herculean effort since March, reviewing immunization records for almost 22,000 students. They've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to accomplish this."

Diaczok said she believed some parents would never have taken care of it without the deadline, but once students were sent home, she began to hear from parents in droves, and they were angry.

"Some were argumentative and would say they gave us proof and that we lost it," she said. "A lot of them just don't think it applies to them. We've tried to figure out over the past few days what's happened with the 2,000 people who missed the deadline, and we don't know. Some came to clinics this week with the letters we sent to them in March or April. Your guess is as good as mine."

Soo Lee of Clarksville said she saw the notices about vaccinations earlier in the school year, but she thought her son, Timothy Park, a Lime Kiln Middle School seventh- grader, still had another year before the shots were mandatory.

After enduring a four-hour wait at a county clinic with her younger son, Lee decided to put off until summer getting the shots for Timothy.

A call from her son's school yesterday morning, however, changed those plans. "I had to get the shots, otherwise they were going to expel him," she said.

Anticipating another long wait, Lee told her son to pack his homework and snacks before heading to the Laurel clinic. She was pleasantly surprised to find no lines.

Nurses and county health officials from all over the state said many students had already been immunized months or years earlier, but getting proof from parents was a major challenge.

Ruth Hill of Laurel received a letter about vaccinations from Reservoir High School in September and went to her daughter Ericka's doctor, who said the ninth-grader had all her shots.

But when Hill was notified before winter break that her daughter could be excluded because the school system lacked the proper records, she decided to take her to the Laurel clinic anyway.

Jane Howson, nursing supervisor for Annapolis Pediatrics, said the practice, which has several locations throughout Anne Arundel County, has had to scramble to accommodate parents.

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