School system responds to below average vaccination rates in light of measles surge


As measles cases surge across the United States, some schools in our region could be at higher risk of experiencing an outbreak than others. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling 2019 the worst year for measles outbreaks in 25 years, with 704 cases confirmed in 22 states so far. 

The Tennessee Department of Health confirmed a fourth measles case in the state Tuesday. Officials said three of them are in East Tennessee. There are no cases confirmed in Virginia at this point. 

According to the most recent annual state data from the Virginia and Tennessee Departments of Health, 229 kindergarten students across 23 school districts in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee are not vaccinated. 

Public health officials say school systems should have vaccination rates of 90 percent or more to reduce risk of an outbreak. They say “community immunity” is critical to protect the most vulnerable, such as those who’re immunocompromised or those too young to get a vaccine. 

Virginia’s Lee County was the only school system in our region to fall below that number, just missing the mark at 89.8 percent. 

Flatwood’s Elementary, where 16 percent of current kindergarten students are not immunized, appeared to be the source of the below average rate. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s surprising. I mean, we’re aware that there are religious exemptions and medical exemptions in our community but all we can do is educate and promote these vaccinations,” said Lee County School’s Head Nurse Ginny Hall. 

While Lee County schools had the lowest overall public school vaccination rate in the region, Washington County, Virginia’s Rhea Valley Elementary had the highest percentage of unvaccinated students at 26 percent. 

Washington County’s head nurse was not available for an interview Tuesday. 

Hall said the school system has been working very closely with the local health department in light of the influx of measles cases. “They have sent us additional information that we have passed on to our staff. They have recommended us to go back and re-evaluate the immunization records and we are in the process of doing so at this time,” she said. 

Hall said they’re reviewing records of both students and staff. 

Meanwhile, local parents who support immunizations are urging skeptics to act with urgency. 

“If their kid gets infected or anything and they come to school they could spread it,” said Flatwoods Elementary parent Claudia Scott. 

Glenda Pennington, whose kids also attend Flatwoods Elementary, said, “I mean I’ve been a nurse for 35 years. I’ve seen a lot of bad things that can happen to children who haven’t had their vaccines.”

Lee County Schools Division Superintendent Brian Austin said education and outreach are critical to improving vaccination rates. 

Austin also made it clear he supports parent choice and would not back targetted efforts at changing individuals minds. “It’s not something that on an individual basis we’re willing to force or provide additional information to parents to encourage them to go down that path if it’s not something they believe in for their child,” he said. 

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