Health officials are concerned fewer children are current on their immunizations. And parents must rely on 2-year-old school vaccination data.

One of the concerned parents is Rebecca Mauldin, who will send her 4-year-old son to a private school that accepts only children who are up to date on immunizations unless they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. He falls into that category after battling cancer and undergoing a liver transplant, she said.

His sister, who has no special health concerns, is a third-grader who started at the school last year after attending public school in Edmond for two years.

Mauldin said the number of nonmedical exemptions at the public school was too high and climbing. It was a big factor in moving her daughter, she said.

“I see what happens in other areas when the vaccination rate gets too low and there are outbreaks of chickenpox and measles,” Mauldin said.

Release of state data showing the percentage of Oklahoma kindergarteners who are up to date on all required vaccines was delayed due to the COVID-19 response, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Health said.

The state has submitted its data for 2019-20 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for review, spokesman Rob Crissinger said. The CDC will release the data for all states in October or November, he said.

Most schools voluntarily report their vaccination and exemption data, but they aren’t required to fill out the kindergarten survey. About half of private schools don’t participate. 

The Oklahoma City-County Health Department has immunized fewer children ahead of school this year, said LToya Knighten, chief of governmental affairs.

Two of its three clinics are temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, but health officials have offered after-hours immunizations on Thursday evenings and Saturdays at those sites. 

“Even still, we’re not seeing the large numbers we typically see,” Knighten said. “We are certainly concerned children could fall behind on their immunization schedules, which, over time if not corrected, could increase the potential for infectious disease spread.” 

Knighten said the Oklahoma City, Tulsa and state health departments are launching a statewide campaign on social media to remind parents of the importance of staying on track with childhood immunization schedules. 

The Tulsa Health Department issued a news release in April warning if routine vaccination is postponed the community could be faced not only with a COVID-19 pandemic but an outbreak of other diseases, such as measles.

“While we are focusing on COVID-19, we don’t want to forget that routine childhood immunizations protect against numerous other vaccine-preventable diseases,” Ellen Niemitalo, immunizations manager, said in the release.

Oklahoma requires kindergarteners to be immunized against 10 diseases unless parents are granted an exemption on medical, religious or personal grounds. The number of approved vaccine exemptions doubled from 2,417 in 2014 to 5,082 in 2019, according to state data. Most were for non-medical reasons. 

A new rule aimed at parents seeking religious and personal exemptions was set to go into effect Sept. 11 but has been delayed for one year. The rule requires parents to first view an instructional video on benefits and risks of immunizations before receiving a non-medical exemption.

Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, a political action committee that promotes exemptions, strongly opposed the requirement, calling it forced vaccine propaganda.

Dr. Lance Frye, Oklahoma’s interim health commissioner, took emergency action in July to postpone the effective date of the new rule until Sept. 15, 2021. 

Frye said doing so “refocuses agency resources to the frontlines of the pandemic and will minimize the number of individuals walking into a county health department at a time when these facilities are operating at maximum capacity to administer free COVID-19 tests.”

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Gov. Kevin Stitt approved the amended rule July 27, noting the requirement for an instructional presentation conflicts with state law governing exemptions from school immunizations. 

Stitt first approved the requirement in June, along with all other administrative rules submitted by state agencies.

“However, I have concerns with certain rules, and my team and I will review our options to address these rules moving forward,” he said in a written statement.

The governor’s communications staff did not respond in June or this week when asked if Stitt supports the new exemption requirement.

Health officials use data from the kindergarten survey to drive public health policy and to implement programs to improve vaccination coverage.

The most recent data available is from 2018-19, when the overall exemption rate for all kindergarteners in the state was 2.6%. That was up from 2.2% in 2017-18 and 1.9% in 2016-17, according to the health department. 

School-specific data was released by the state for the first time in May 2019 at Oklahoma Watch’s request. 

The data show rates can vary widely within a school district. Norman Public Schools, for example, reported Lakeview Elementary had an 82.4% vaccination rate while Lincoln Elementary had a 100% vaccination rate.

The state requires kindergarteners to be vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, polio, hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Oklahoma is one of 15 states, including Texas and Arkansas, that allow parents to cite personal reasons to exempt their children from immunizations required by schools and childcare centers. 

The nonprofit Vaccinate Oklahoma —a coalition of medical professionals and parents concerned about the decline of vaccination rates in Oklahoma — wants the state to eliminate personal and philosophical exemptions.

Vaccine skeptics have successfully fought off efforts in the Legislature and state government to tighten exemptions in recent years.

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